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 Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Jeff Kubina

So you want to become a Supreme Court Justice, eh? Thinking about assuming the mantle Justice Scalia and others have so proudly worn? Well, hats off to you — it’s a noble profession (most of the time). It’s also the pinnacle of what a lawyer can become in America, unless he’s willing to debase himself enough to enter politics.


It’s easy to understand the appeal. With their lifetime appointments, brilliant clerk teams and challenging cases to evaluate, who wouldn’t want this awesome job? So how do you get to there from here? Make no mistake, it will be a difficult path — but if it’s what you want, don’t let that stop you.

THE BASICS

You’ll have to be a spectacular student. It is very helpful to have an Ivy undergraduate degree (albeit not required). What is required is that you graduate at or near the top of your class. After that, you’ll want to go to law school within two or three years of graduating. Attend Harvard or Yale (Stanford, Columbia and Northwestern have also had recent alums placed on the highest court in the land, but those two schools are your best bet by a long shot). Again, you’ll need to be an outstanding student — graduate at or near the top 10% of your class and make it onto Law Review. Ideally, become the chief editor, but this isn’t a requirement.

Done all that? Good! You’re now officially in the running to become a Supreme Court Justice!

THE NEXT STAGE

After you graduate with your JD, you have a few options.  You don’t have to pursue all of these, but you will certainly want to have at least three of these on your resume by the time you turn fifty to be seriously considered for the highest court in the land.

• Clerk immediately after graduating. Begin with the court of appeals and then make it to the Supreme Court in your second year. This positions you well to transition into government jobs and makes you very attractive to the Supreme Court in the long run, since you already have a good sense of how the court works and have (ghost)written many of their arguments and dissents.

• Enter private practice. While it doesn’t build prestige, it does make you some money and it has a charmingly blue-collar ring to it. It doesn’t necessarily matter that much what kind of private practice you’re doing, as long as you’re building and maintaining the key political connections that will ultimately allow you to get that appointment you’re after.

• Join academia. Five of the nine current justices (counting Scalia, RIP) taught law to undergraduates. Academia allows you to make a name for yourself (and carve out a niche) as a writer and a legal theorist, which makes it very relevant to a job where your opinions are going to be read closely at every law school in America.

• Work in government. Assistant to the US Attorney, Solicitor General, Office of Legal Counsel, and Associate Counsel to the president are some good positions to target for aspiring political operators (and make no mistake, the Supreme Court has highly very political appointment process). You’ll get in front of some of the politicians who are most likely to be making the next choice of who to promote.

• Become a judge.
Getting appointed to the Federal Court of Appeals is a great way to gain visibility and start putting out important opinions with your name on them. It’s also a good way for you to make sure that you actually enjoy being a judge (don’t worry, almost everyone does).

THE NOMINATION PROCESS

Okay, so you’re in that golden age range (remember, presidents like to appoint ‘young’ justices of about 45-50 years of age so that their choice will last for awhile), you’re in good health, you’ve had a dream career and the president’s got his eye on you. What will be the determining factors that lift you above your equally qualified peers?

• Are you diverse?  Adding some color to the court will always be an attractive bonus at this stage of the game.

• Are you moderate?
  Did you ever allow your opinions to venture too far out of the mainstream? If so, they will almost certainly be used against you during the nomination process. Remember, if you’re signing it, keep it bland!

• Are you well-liked?  Again, the Supreme Court is ultimately a political appointment. Attending the right DC cocktail parties and making friends on both sides of the aisle will hopefully be helping you during this stage of a contentious nomination process.

CONGRATULATIONS, YOU MADE IT!

Hope you enjoy wearing long dark robes to work every day!

(and just in case you’re interested in a legal career that’s a little less lofty, we’d be happy to give you some pointers on that too)