Here’s how the Supreme Court confirmation process works

Published on: Sep 25, 2020fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
SCOTUS building exteriorGetty Images
The Story

Supreme Court nominees have to jump through a few hoops to get their robes. Here’s how it works… 

  • Step 1: The nomination. When there’s an opening on the bench, the president nominates someone to fill it. The Constitution doesn’t list any requirements to become a justice, but all justices have some kind of law experience (think: previous jobs as federal judges). Once named, the nominee is heavily vetted through extensive questionnaires and an FBI background check. They also typically try to meet with as many senators as they can to get to know each other.

  • Step 2: The confirmation hearings. Next the Senate Judiciary Committee holds public hearings to ask the nominee about their work experience, judicial philosophies, and more. These hearings last at least several days. As the committee chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) will lead the hearing. Two others to watch: ranking committee member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and VP nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who has a record of asking tough questions at confirmation hearings.

  • Step 3: The committee vote. The 22 committee members vote on whether to recommend the nominee to the full Senate. They can either recommend, reject, or give no recommendation. But no matter what, it still goes to…

  • Step 4: The full Senate vote. A majority of senators (51) would need to vote in favor to give a nominee the job. If there’s a tie, the VP gets called in to cast a tie-breaking vote. Right now Republicans control the Senate and appear to have the votes they need to confirm Trump’s pick.

How long does this process typically take?

On average, it takes about 70 days. Though in some cases, like with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, justices were confirmed quicker – RBG was confirmed in 42 days. Republicans are trying to confirm Trump’s third SCOTUS nominee ASAP, hoping to ensure a conservative court and clinch a big win with conservatives before the election. Plus, Trump and other Republicans have claimed that there is a possibility of a contested election, which the Supreme Court may have to weigh in on – and eight justices instead of nine could lead to a 4-4 tie. Democrats have said whoever wins the election should get to nominate RBG’s replacement. 

Can they confirm someone after Election Day?

Yes. Even if the Dems win the Senate and/or White House in the election, the Republican-led Senate can confirm Trump’s nominee up until January 3, 2021 – when the new session of Congress starts.


The confirmation process is a crucial time for senators and the public to get to know the next potential SCOTUS justice – someone who could have an impact on the Court’s decisions for a generation. During a pandemic and an election year, the process is unlikely to be business as usual.

Skimm'd by Maria Martinolich and Hadley Malcolm

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