Legendary Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that a Supreme Court Justice should be a "combination of Justinian, Jesus Christ, and John Marshall."
Why are venerable former justices sources of guidance in understanding necessary qualities for federal judges?
The Constitution is silent on judicial qualifications. It meticulously outlines qualifications for the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the presidency, but it does not give any advice for judicial appointments other than stating that justices should exhibit "good behavior." As a result, selections are governed primarily by tradition.
The Constitution provides broad parameters for the judicial nomination process. It gives the responsibility for nominating federal judges and justices to the president. It also requires nominations to be confirmed by the Senate. First, look at the numbers.
More than 600 judges sit on district courts, almost 200 judges sit on courts of appeals, and 9 justices make up the Supreme Court. Because all federal judges have life terms, no single president will make all of these appointments.
But many vacancies do occur during a president's term of office. Appointing judges, then, could be a full-time job. A president relies on many sources to recommend appropriate nominees for judicial posts.
Recommendations often come from the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, members of Congress, sitting judges and justices, and the American Bar Association. Some judicial hopefuls even nominate themselves.
A special, very powerful tradition for recommending district judges is called senatorial courtesy. According to this practice, the senators from the state in which the vacancy occurs actually make the decision. A senator of the same political party as the President sends a nomination to the president, who almost always follows the recommendation. To ignore it would be a great affront to the senator, as well as an invitation for conflict between the president and the Senate.
Presidents must consider many factors in making their choices for federal judgeships:
Because federal judges and Supreme Court justices serve for life, a president's nomination decisions are in many ways his or her most important legacy. Many of these appointments will serve long after a president's term of office ends. Whether or not the results are a "combination of Justinian, Jesus Christ, and John Marshall," these choices can have an impact on generations to come.