How to know your Supreme Court justices

My admittedly unfair and terribly biased list of determiners of intelligence begins with:

  • The number of Supreme Court justices that a person can name

While my list has been surprisingly well received by a multitude of readers (I expected to be excoriated on the basis of my criteria), several have questioned me on this first item, wondering how anyone could be expected to know the names of all the Supreme Court justices when they appear in the news so infrequently.

In response, I promised to outline my rationale. Here goes:

President Obama has nominated two new Supreme Court justices in the last sixteen months: Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Both were subsequently confirmed by the Senate after a series of public hearings.

Both of these nominations were big news stores. Both occurred recently and Sotomayor is the first Hispanic justice on the Court.

If you’ve been paying any attention to the news over the last year or so, you should probably know these two names.

You should also know the third female judge on the Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was only the second female Supreme Court justice in US history and the only female justice on the court for almost five years until Sotomayor was confirmed in August of 2009, making her rather notable.

In short, you should probably know all the current female members of the Court. Two are quite recent nominees and the other was singular for quite a while and relatively historic.

If you do, you’re already up to three.

Oh, there are nine justices by the way. Sadly, most Americans do not know this.

Then you have John Roberts, the Chief Justice for the past five years and the man for whom the Court has been named (The Roberts Court). As Chief Justice, Roberts tends to be the face of the court, appearing most often in news stories related to recent rulings and occasionally exchanging verbal jabs with the President over their opposing views of legal activism on the Court (the kind of exchange virtually unheard of until Roberts and Obama began taking swings at one another last year).

He was also the justice who administered the oath of office to Obama twice after misspeaking on inauguration day and causing a brief Constitutional kerfuffle.

If you know any Supreme Court justices, you should probably know Roberts.

And now you’re up to four.

If you were born prior to 1975, you should be old enough to remember the sexual harassment scandal involving Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Court, not to mention the fact that he is often reported as being the only Supreme Court justice to have never asked a single questioned during oral arguments.

Not one in more than two years, and barely any in his almost twenty years on the Court.

He is also the only African-American on the Court and only the second African-American in history of the Supreme Court.

Add to this his wife, Virginia Hill, a Tea Party advocate, who was in the news recently when she contacted Anita Hill, the woman who Thomas allegedly harassed, in order to confront her regarding the nearly twenty year old allegations against her husband.

Apparently Virginia Hill does not believe in letting sleeping dogs lie.

For these many reasons, you should probably know Clarence Thomas’s name.

And now you’re up to five. And if you can name five justices, you are already well ahead of the majority of Americans (two-thirds cannot name a single Supreme Court justice), and you’re doing just fine in my book. Five isn’t great, but it’s passable in my opinion, which if you will remember, serves as the basis for the list.

The last justice who I feel people should know is Anthony Kennedy, since he is often the swing vote on the Court. With four conservative justices and four liberal justices currently serving on the high court, Kennedy, a centrist in many respects, is frequently cited as the Court’s most influential member, and his vote often determines the direction of a ruling. If you are paying any attention to the Supreme Court at all, you should be paying attention to the way that Kennedy is leaning on any issue.

So now you’re up to six. Success in my book.

The last three justices, two conservatives and one liberal, are admittedly more difficult to name. In fact, in listing them yesterday, I could not recall the name of one of them. His name eventually came to me, but initially I could only name eight.

The remaining three, Stephen Breyer (a liberal who has served on the Court for sixteen years), Samuel Alito (a conservative who has been serving for just four years) and Antonin Scalia (the conservative justice who I could not name yesterday who has served for more than twenty-five years), have not been in the news recently and tend to maintain a lower profile compared to most other justices.

A triumvirate of boring, old white guys.

If you missed one of these three, I understand. Even though Scalia is the longest serving justice and Alito was nominated less than four years ago, these men tend to stay out of the news.

If you managed to name more than six, I’m impressed.

If you managed to name all nine, I’m incredibly impressed.

Not enough to make up for being a Jets fan or rejecting evolution or watching twelve hours of reality TV a week, but still impressive and a clear indication of an active, engaged mind.