Report from Governmental Affairs

SCOTUS nominees get thorough review by ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary

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Supreme court

The Roberts court will add a member to replace the late Antonin Scalia.

The unexpected death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Feb. 13 triggered a wave of eulogies from throughout the legal profession and the political community. But the sudden vacancy on the nation's highest court also meant that the 15 members of the ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary would have a lot more work to do in the coming months.

The committee membership includes lawyers from every federal circuit in the nation, who each typically volunteer between 500 and 1,000 hours per year conducting and reviewing confidential nonpartisan peer review evaluations of the professional qualifications of nominees to the Supreme Court, along with potential nominees to the federal district and appellate courts and the Court of International Trade, all created under Article III of the Constitution, and territorial district courts created under Article IV.

The committee currently is chaired by Karol Corbin Walker, a shareholder at LeClairRyan in Newark, New Jersey. The committee has been involved in the process of selecting federal judges for more than 60 years, and its impartiality and independence are essential to the effectiveness of its work, which is insulated and separate from all other activities of the ABA.

“The standing committee makes a unique contribution to the vetting process,” says ABA Governmental Affairs Office Deputy Director Denise A. Cardman, who has staffed the committee for the past 15 years. “Its extensive, unbiased peer evaluation provides important information for the administration, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate to consider as they deliberate over who should be nominated and confirmed to a lifetime position on the federal bench.”


In conducting its evaluations, the standing committee focuses solely on a nominee’s integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament, and does not consider the nominee’s philosophy, ideology or political affiliations.

While integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament are the basis for the committee’s evaluation of all federal court nominees, the investigations of Supreme Court nominees are particularly rigorous. For those nominees, the committee conducts the most extensive nationwide peer review possible on the premise that, given the significance, range and complexity of issues that the Supreme Court considers, candidates to sit on the highest court in the land must have particularly exceptional professional qualifications.

Unlike its evaluations of potential nominees to the lower courts, the committee conducts its investigations of Supreme Court nominees after, rather than before, the president has submitted a nomination or has announced an intention to nominate a particular individual. And while the primary investigation for a potential lower court nominee is conducted by a single member, all members of the committee conduct interviews within their circuits of individuals who have information regarding the professional qualifications of a Supreme Court nominee. Typically, hundreds of such interviews are conducted around the country.

Another crucial part of the process is an in-depth interview of the nominee that includes a full opportunity to address any adverse information that has come up during the peer reviews.

The evaluation of a Supreme Court nominee includes a team (or teams) of distinguished law school professors who examine the nominee’s legal writings for quality, clarity, knowledge of the law and analytical ability. A national team of practicing lawyers with Supreme Court experience also examines the legal writings of the nominee.

Each team submits its analysis and comments for consideration by the full committee. The committee members then vote to rate the nominee “well-qualified,” “qualified” or “not qualified.” The rating is submitted in writing to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the White House, the U.S. Department of Justice and the nominee, and is posted on the ABA committee’s website. The committee also prepares a detailed written statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee explaining the reasons for its rating, and it traditionally is invited to testify as the first public witness at the nominee’s confirmation hearing.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “A Close Look: Supreme Court nominees get a thorough review by the ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary.”

This report is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the federal government. Rhonda McMillion is editor of ABA Washington Letter, a Governmental Affairs Office publication.

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