SCOTUS Career Pathways

Comparing the careers of the sitting Justices with Judge Brown's

I found this graphic from WaPo (How Ketanji Brown Jackson’s
path to the Supreme Court differs from the current justices
) to be of interest:

The strength of the Ivy League continues (as does Court of Appeals experience), but as has been widely noted, her work as a public defender is unique (and will add, if confirmed, a needed perspective in my view–likewise the US Sentencing Commission). I was mildly surprised at the general lack of district court experience of the other sitting Justices.

FILED UNDER: Supreme Court, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. SKI says:

    I was mildly surprised at the general lack of district court experience of the other sitting Justices.

    Remember that the prevailing characteristic recently, beyond Ivy League, is relative youth. The “rock star” candidates who rise quickly enough to be considered for SCOTUS are identified and seeded by their respective teams directly onto the Court of Appeals as soon as possible.

  2. SKI says:

    Not covered in the graphic but my understanding is that all those who were not public high school educated were Catholic high school educated.

  3. mattbernius says:

    Two thoughts:
    First, on the district court thing, it took a little digging, but as of 2017*, only about 30% of Circuit Judges were people who had been elevated from District Judges. That’s keeping in line with my understanding. The reality is that District Judge isn’t necessarily a reliable career path to ending up on the circuit. HL92 — does that match your experience?

    I can see an argument that the Supreme Court Justice Selection should be biased towards people with district experience so they have a better practical sense of how their rulings will impact lower Judges (and their Clerks who will be interpreting the rulings).

    Second, I wish there was a broader version of this chart (not focused on Judge Jackson) that included other key past careers (like being a prosecutor). I think that would really help show some of the potential biases on the court.

    * –

  4. Slugger says:

    Political reliability and allegiance somehow left off the list of qualifications.

  5. Jen says:

    Honestly, I am just so impressed by Ketanji Brown Jackson anyways…but this chart, which has been making the rounds for a couple of weeks I think, just drives home the point. I *love* that she was a public defender–this is a KEY PART of our legal system and it’s shocking that we don’t have this range of experience on the Court already.

    Hawley, Cruz, Graham–they all look absolutely awful.

    @SKI: Yes, that appears to be the case–Sotomayor, Roberts, Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett all attended Catholic schools. Which, frankly, is kind of weird that Catholicism should be so over-represented.

  6. gVOR08 says:


    Hawley, Cruz, Graham–they all look absolutely awful.

    To us yes. But to their primary voters they look like they’re fighting valiantly, but losing to the overwhelming forces of deep state CRT and Marxism. And most people will be blissfully unaware of their behavior.

    And the chart should show Federalist Society membership.

    The tilt toward Catholics is weird and came with the elevation of abortion as an issue. Among the eternal, unchanging verities of conservative belief is that Kennedy following the dictates of the Pope, and imposing them on the rest of us, would be bad but Barrett doing so is good.

  7. CSK says:

    @Jen: @gVOR08:
    For what it’s worth, Kavanaugh and Gorsuch attended Georgetown Prep, a Jesuit private school.

    The first Roman Catholic Justice was Roger Taney (appointed 1836), who was famous for the Dred Scott decision.

  8. Argon says:

    Another key difference vs. recent justices: Jackson never dabbled with the Federalist Society rubbish.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @mattbernius and Steven: I agree that more Justices should have trial court experience and, more generally, simply a more diverse set of experiences than has become typical for reasons @SKI outlines.

    Being a trial judge and an appellate judge—let alone a Supreme Court justice—are completely different animals. Any of us would ostensibly be qualified to sit on the Supreme Court but only a trained lawyer could be a trial judge. But we’d be better off having at least some who came up through the trial route, some who are career politicians, some who are professional philosophers, etc.

  10. mattbernius says:

    Being a trial judge and an appellate judge—let alone a Supreme Court justice—are completely different animals.


    And further being a State or County Trial Judge is different than a Federal District Judge too.

    Beyond their trial responsibilities, District Judges, are the first level for the Federal Appeals process which often relies on the interpretation of Circuit and Supreme Court decisions. That makes them keenly aware of the challenges that a poorly crafted decision can create.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    Bruce Cannon Gibney argues in The Nonsense Factory. an apt title for a book about the American legal “system”, that,

    If jurisprudence is so important, why isn’t it taught? Partly because American law assumes that the Constitution will answer any question if tortured long enough, and fears what might happen if that proves untrue. And partly because jurisprudence is just difficult. Scholars don’t agree on basic concepts, including what constitutes “jurisprudence,” much less on a grand unified theory.

    I think he’s right. The gaps and ambiguities inherent in a four page, two century old document require a robust, accepted, body of jurisprudence. Which we don’t have.

    Several federal judges have held the 1/6 defendants can be charged with obstructing an official proceeding and one has ruled otherwise, The whole thing revolving around the meaning of “otherwise” in the statute. Hence the importance of the Supreme Court and why it has devolved into a law school debate exercise.

    The absence of an accepted jurisprudence allowed the Federalist Society to pretend Originalism is the only correct theory of interpretation. In practice it allows them to “torture” whatever they want from the words of the Founders and claim that any precedent to the contrary is incorrectly decided. One could just as well apply numerology to the Constitution. Hence all the silly questions about Jacksons judicial philosophy.

  12. grumpy realist says:

    If I had been able to ask one question of (hopefully soon to be Justice) Jackson, it would be: can the Supreme Court PLEASE pretty please come up with a better definition of “overly abstract” for us poor schlubs in the patent office? (Actually it would be “what is your opinion of the status of CLS Bank in light of the present lower court decisions?”) We’re constantly arguing over whether a certain claim fails under 101 (or not) in our weekly meetings….

  13. Kathy says:

    Surprise surprise! Mitch won’t vote for Judge Jackson, which he announced on a Senate floor speech. Meaning he’s pretty much telling the GQP not to vote to confirm.

    So get ready to hear the words “along partisan lines” fairly often.