Senate Judiciary Committee Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Senatorial committee with primary jurisdiction over most legislative matters pertaining to the federal courts, including the Supreme Court.

Established in 1816, the Judiciary Committee was one of the original eleven standing committees in the Senate. It quickly became a powerful influence on national legislation and the confirmation process for federal judges, including presidential nominees to the Supreme Court.Nominations to the Court

The Constitution requires the advice and consent of the full Senate on presidential nominees to the federal courts, but starting in 1968 the Judiciary Committee performed the initial investigation of the nominees. This investigation includes holding formal committee hearings on the qualifications of the nominees. Beginning with the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the committee sought advice from the American Bar Association Committee on Federal Judiciary,American Bar Association Committee on Federal Judiciary which rates the nominees as “well qualified,” “qualified,” and “not qualified.”

After the investigation and hearings are complete, the Judiciary Committee reports its findings and recommendations to the full Senate before the chamber votes on the nominee. Historically, the full Senate has failed to confirm about 20 percent of presidential nominees to the Court, although during most of the early twentieth century, presidential nominees faced little opposition. In the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s, however, there have been some difficult political struggles over various nominees, both in the Judiciary Committee and in the full Senate.

Committee Confirmation Hearings

For senators, interest groups, the media, the public, and the nominees, the committee confirmation hearings have become an important political event. Not until 1955, however, did Supreme Court nominees regularly appear at the hearings to answer questions about their nomination. During the confirmation hearings for William J. Brennan, Jr.,Brennan, William J., Jr. held in 1957, the committee questioned Brennan for a total of three hours, over two days of hearings, with no interest group testimony at the hearings. In 1969 the committee questioned nominee Thurgood MarshallMarshall, Thurgood for about seven hours, with only one interest group testifying.

In 1987 nominee Robert H. BorkBork, Robert H. answered questions for thirty hours over four and a half days of hearings. Bork’s confirmation hearings lasted for a total of twelve days, including testimony from 112 witnesses representing eighty-six different interest groups. Clarence ThomasThomas, Clarence testified for twenty-four and a half hours in 1991, and his hearings included ninety-six witnesses. Ruth Bader Ginsburg,Ginsburg, Ruth Bader a relatively noncontroversial nominee, testified for nearly twenty hours in 1993, and her hearings drew some twenty witnesses. These confirmation hearings are often televised to a national audience.

Because Supreme Court justices serve life terms on the highest court in the nation, interest groups have become increasingly active during the confirmation process. Interest groups direct many of their energies toward supporting or defeating nominees in the committee deliberation stage.

A strong example of the role that interest groups can play in the nomination and confirmation processes is the Senate’s rejection of Bork’s nomination. Because Bork was viewed as much too conservative by many centrist and liberal interests, his nomination saw an enormous amount of grass-roots mobilization both for and against him. Among the interest groups opposing Bork were the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Organization for Women, the Sierra Club, Common Cause, and the AFL-CIO. Interest groups supporting the Bork nomination included the American Conservative Union, the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Right to Life Committee, and the National Right to Work Committee. The Bork nomination was eventually rejected by the full Senate by a vote of forty-two to fifty-eight.

Interest groups also got involved in the confirmation process for Thomas in part because of allegations of sexual harassment against him. During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, many women’s groups were upset that an all-male committee was deciding on Thomas’s confirmation to the Court. Although the full Senate did eventually confirm Thomas by a very close vote of fifty-two to forty-eight, several male senators who voted for the Thomas nomination lost their seats in the Senate. Also several women won election to the Senate following the confirmation battle, stating that the Thomas nomination was one of the main reasons they decided to run for the Senate. In addition, several women gained seats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Although some nominations to the Court, such as those of Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O’Connor, have drawn little interest group activity, other nominations, such as the elevation of William H. Rehnquist to chief justice and the nominations of Bork and Thomas, have produced a great deal of attention from interest groups. It is clear that the Senate will reject a nominee for both professional and ideological reasons.

Constitutional Amendments and Other Duties

In addition to its role in the confirmation process for judicial nominees, the Senate Judiciary Committee also has primary jurisdiction over proposed constitutional amendments and other legislation affecting the federal courts. Because the number of justices who sit on the Court is not specified in the Constitution, the Judiciary Committee must also handle any proposals to increase the number of justices on the Court, such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Court-packing plan. Roosevelt wanted to almost double the size of the Court so that he could fill it with justices amenable to New Deal reforms. Some of the proposals sent to the Judiciary Committee can involve attacks on the Court, often because certain senators are unhappy with specific rulings. The Judiciary Committee can become involved with highly controversial issues that can have a direct effect on how the Court does its business.

Further Reading
  • Abraham, Henry J. Justices and Presidents: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Baum, Lawrence. The Supreme Court. 8th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2004.
  • Caldeira, Gregory A., and John R. Wright. “Lobbying for Justice: The Rise of Organized Conflict in the Politics of Federal Judgeships.” In Contemplating Courts, edited by Lee Epstein. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1995.
  • Davis, Richard. Electing Justice: Fixing the Supreme Court Nomination Process. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Katzmann, Robert A. Courts and Congress. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1997.
  • Maltese, John Anthony. The Selling of Supreme Court Nominees. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
  • Slotnick, Elliot E., and Sheldon Goldman. “Congress and the Courts: A Case of Casting.” In Great Theatre: The American Congress in the 1990’s, edited by Herbert F. Weisberg and Samuel C. Patterson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

American Bar Association Committee on Federal Judiciary

Bork, Robert H.

Judicial activism

Judicial powers

Judicial self-restraint

Nominations to the Court

Political parties

Presidential powers

Rehnquist, William H.

Senatorial courtesy

Thomas, Clarence

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