Standing committee of the American Bar Association (ABA) that evaluates the qualifications of prospective candidates and presidential nominees for the federal bench, including the Supreme Court.
The ABA committee directs its attention to the professional qualifications of nominees, defined as their integrity, professional competence, and judicial temperament. Because the Supreme Court is at the head of the judicial hierarchy, the committee employs its criteria with a view toward obtaining justices with exceptional ability.
Procedures for evaluating nominees for the Supreme Court differ somewhat from those employed for other federal judgeships although the general operating principles are consistent. In the investigation of Supreme Court nominees, unlike the procedure for examining other federal judge candidates, all fifteen members of the committee take part. The committee interviews those who are most likely to have information on candidates, including judges, practicing attorneys in all sectors of the law, law professors and deans, and representatives of legal associations and organizations. The legal writings of prospective nominees are examined by law professors working together to evaluate the intellectual qualities of the prospective nominees. As a cross-check on the findings of the professors, teams of practicing attorneys also examine the writings, which include scholarly articles, judicial opinions if the candidates are or have been judges, and briefs of counsel authored by the prospective justices.
The committee employs three ratings in reporting evaluations of Court nominees: “well qualified,” “qualified,” and “not qualified.” First, the committee’s ratings are submitted in confidence to the attorney general. If the president forwards the nomination to the Senate, then the committee reports its findings to the Senate Judiciary Committee. At the confirmation hearings, an ABA committee member, without revealing the source of its findings, makes a formal presentation reporting on the reasons for the committee’s evaluation.
The ABA president appoints each member of the committee for staggered three-year terms. No member may serve more than two terms. The committee typically has fifteen members, one of whom is an at-large member, and the rest are chosen from all twelve judicial circuits to ensure geographical balance. Although the committee draws members from all over the nation, the ABA leadership generally comes from the upper reaches of the highly stratified legal profession. Critics of the ABA argue that the elite of the legal profession seek to populate the bench with judges and justices that share their view of the world.
Throughout most of the organization’s history, ABA leaders were responsible for resolutions and congressional lobbying activities that aligned them with the more conservative elements within the U.S. political culture. For example, sixteen former ABA presidents opposed the 1916 nomination of Louis D. Brandeis
During the 1980’s, conservative forces in Congress charged that the ABA committee reflected liberal political biases when evaluating the qualifications of prospective judges and justices. Conservatives were particularly upset with the committee because four members found President Ronald Reagan’s nominee, Robert H. Bork,
The ABA has endeavored to portray itself as an objective, public-service-oriented organization that is not interested in promoting partisan policy goals. The ABA Committee on Federal Judiciary clearly plays an important role in the process of selecting judges and justices.
Abraham, Henry J. Justices, Presidents, and Congress: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court. 4th ed. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. American Bar Association. The Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary: What It Is and How It Works. Chicago: Author, 1991. Goldman, Sheldon. Picking Federal Judges: Lower Court Selection From Roosevelt Through Reagan. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Grossman, Joel B. Lawyers and Judges: The ABA and the Politics of Judicial Selection. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1965. Melone, Albert P. Lawyers, Public Policy, and Interest Group Politics. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1977. Slotnick, Elliot, “The ABA Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary: A Contemporary Assessment.” Judicature 66 (1983): 348-362, 385-393.
Judicial codes and rules
Nominations to the Court
Senate Judiciary Committee