The only real qualification is that you get appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
In real life, though, it’s unlikely that you would get confirmed unless you are an actual law-talking guy, probably with some experience on the federal bench or at least some prominence in constitutional issues.
Bingo. The only literal requirement is nomination by the President and confirmation by the Senate. But in an analogy to another event in the news recently, the only literal requirement for election as Pope is that you be a baptized Catholic man. Canon law even specifically provides that if the person chosen is not already a bishop, he is to be immediately ordained bishop – specifically, in other words, contemplating the choice of someone who is not a cardinal or even a bishop.
But the practical reality, in this day and age, is that the choice will be a cardinal.
So, too, with the US Supreme Court. (Actually, with five of the nine members being Catholic, a rather interesting comparison I just drew!) Anyway, the political reality is that at least someone with a strong legal background would be necessary. The most recent pick, Elena Kagan, was never a federal judge, but did serve as US Solicitor General and Dean of Harvard Law School. But prior to her successful nomination, you have to go back to 1972 to find another Justice with no experience as a federal judge: William Rehnquist, who was an Assistant Attorney General during the Nixon administration. So being a federal circuit judge is, while not strictly necessary, pretty common in successful SCOTUS picks.
Some fairly seminal figures were not judges by profession, nor even practicing lawyers for most of their career (though they were no doubt admitted to the bar and may have held court-appearing offices such as Attorney or Solicitor General). Consider John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Howard Taft, Hugo L. Black, Earl Warren, and Felix Frankfurter as examples.
O’Connor is kind of a special case; Reagan wanted a woman (having promised to appoint one to SCOTUS during the campaign) and there were only two federal circuit judges to pick from. Cornelia Kennedy was a staunch conservative, so he could have picked her, but Amalya Kearse was (is, in fact) a black liberal and thus an unlikely choice.
Fair enough. I think there might have been a few more who had already taken senior status or were sitting by designation. I wrote a paper about the mechanics of minority SCOTUS appointments as an undergrad, but I don’t know where it is so I may be forgetting someone.
Robert Jackson andStanley Reed were the last Supreme Court justices who did not graduate from law school, although both of them had attended and “read law” to gain admittance to the bar. Considering that Jackson had previously been confirmed as attorney general and Reed as solicitor general, their lack of official law degrees didn’t hamper them too much.
Hillary Clinton’s lack of serious legal experience in her career would most likely make her nomination extremely difficult. Part of the reason Harriet Miers was opposed by members of both parties is that she was widely seen to lack sufficient legal expertise to be on the bench.
Hillary is a smart woman who graduated from Yale Law and then had a career as a lawyer up until her time as First Lady, but held no high government legal positions, and it would probably be arguably how much time as a partner in a law firm from 1979-1992 while first lady of Arkansas was actually spent in regular practice of the law.
Part of the negatives against Miers were her lack of any real appellate court experience, which could be equally levied against Clinton. Based on pure opinion, Clinton “seems” more intelligent than Miers, but Miers had been a practicing lawyer for nearly 30 years as well as White House Counsel and headed I believe the Texas State bar at one point, so if she was considered a legal light weight it’d be very hard for Clinton to not suffer from similar denunciations.
Further, that’s all before we factor in Clinton has by now had a very long political career that is highly atypical for people who make it onto the Supreme Court these days. Elena Kagan, when nominated, had an article written about her that noted literally since her days as an undergraduate in college she had been carefully avoiding certain activities or expressing certain opinions so she could some day be on the Supreme Court. That’s the level of “non-controversy” that is required to get confirmed these days and Clinton, having been a practicing politician, has taken way too many overt positions on way too many issues to get confirmed.
The point is that you really only have to convince 52 people - a president and a majority of the senate. (or more practically - 62?).
However, even the most partisan of senators probably recognize that being on the Supreme Court is like a glorified version of being a Yale Law School (or similar) professor. They don’t want intellectual lightweights, they want people who can think deeply about the subtleties of the law. When the SCOTUS writes an opinion, the precise wording is extremely important; not just because they decide some key social issues, but because the simplest words in the decision may influence other lower court decisions for a century to come.
Another issue is specifically to do with politics vs. law. Being head of the bar, etc. indicates good political animal instincts, not in-depth legal knowledge. Deciding deep social issues on political motivations rather than a respect for precedent (and not knowing the balance) is a bad idea. It means the court is called into disrepute. (We see this already with perceptions that political bias seems to be more relevant than law and social principles with some recent appointments).
So Meirs may have been somewhat politically clever, but she did not prove her intellectual qualifications when it was necessary. She couldn’t convince 50 more people, even if she convinced the first.
s for Clinton - if I had to pick smarts between her and Meirs, no contest. She appears to be very smart, paling only in comparison with her husband the Rhodes scholar. The only question is whether 50 people would have the intellectual fortitude to accept her nomination; plus, by the 10,000 hour rule, has she spent enough time immersed in legal minutae to be qualified to do the job?
that’s the key. You want someone with experience. Smarts can substitute for some experience, but not completely.
Twice Hillary Clinton and Meirs have been compared on “intelligence” or “being smart.” Horsefeathers. Robert Bork was recognized for quite a while already as being one of the most piercing analytical legal minds of the day, in the entire nation. He still is, in fact.