Do You Have to Have Experience to Become a Federal Judge?

Federal judges have major responsibilities. Thus, you might naturally assume that the requirements for becoming a federal judge are extensive.

This is not actually the case. The United States Constitution establishes virtually no specific requirements for filling this role. That does not mean it is easy to become a federal judge. In most instances, candidates’ experience and qualifications will determine whether they are confirmed as federal judges.

What is a Federal Judge?

The Constitution allows federal judges to serve lifelong terms. A federal judge’s term length may only be reduced if they engage in unethical behavior.

The most well-known type of federal judge is a Supreme Court justice. However, courts of appeal judges and district court judges are also federal judges.

How Does Someone Become a Federal Judge?

The President nominates federal judge candidates. Once the President has nominated someone, the U.S. Senate is responsible for confirming their appointment. That someone has been nominated to fill a federal judgeship does not always guarantee they will actually be appointed.

Interestingly, a candidate for a federal judge position does not even need to have a law degree to be nominated. Naturally, the senators involved in confirming an appointment will usually review a candidate’s background and will be unlikely to confirm an appointment if a candidate lacks relevant experience.

A candidate who has extensive experience as a judge and/or lawyer will be the most likely to receive confirmation as a federal judge.

Additional Steps Required to Become a Federal Judge

Senators are not the only ones who may be involved in determining whether a candidate for a federal judge role is fit to serve in the judiciary. Candidates for federal judgeships are also subject to background checks conducted by the Department of Justice and the FBI. If a candidate has previous experience as another type of judge, part of their background check will usually involve an analysis of their past decisions.

Those conducting background checks will also review a candidate’s published writings and other such works. It is even common for a candidate’s college work to be part of this review process.

The American Bar Association typically weighs in on a candidate’s qualifications (or lack thereof) as well. While the ABA does not have the authority to approve or reject a candidate, the ABA will issue an opinion on a candidate’s qualifications. History has told us that an ABA endorsement can improve a candidate’s chances of receiving a confirmation.

It is extremely rare for the members of the ABA’s review committee to unanimously agree a candidate is not qualified to be a federal judge. However, the ABA recently issued a unanimous judgment of “not qualified” after reviewing a candidate’s background for a federal district judgeship in Alabama who had never tried a single case.

The nomination stopped moving forward shortly after the ABA issued its unanimous judgment. It’s likely this was a factor influencing the decision to rescind the candidate’s nomination.

There have been Supreme Court Justices who had no previous experience as judges, but such cases are rare. In those instances, said Justices were confirmed because they had other relevant experience in related areas that qualified them for their roles.

Becoming a federal judge does not require judicial experience in the past. Luckily, there are systems in place to limit the chances of unqualified candidates being confirmed. This is critical due to the influence federal judges can have on both individual cases and federal law.