Are all supreme court nominations political?

A brief analysis of current supreme court justices, their appointments, and their rulings

As you may have heard recently, the Supreme Court struck down by 6-3 the eviction moratorium imposed by the CDC in a case brought by the Alabama Association of Realtors. The majority opinion was that the CDC does not have the authority to impose eviction moratoriums. Due legislation passed through congress would be necessary to grant the CDC such powers. The lone dissenters were the three liberal judges on the court:

  • Breyer
  • Sotomayor
  • Kagan

I was discussing this with a few friends, in the context of other current events (like Afghanistan), and made the comment that “at least Trump packed the supreme court full of conservative judges”. My friend responded that Trump made totally irresponsible  nominees on political lines of inexperienced judges (referring mostly to Barrett). So we looked up - how many years of federal judgeship had each appointee had before becoming a supreme court judge?

Republican Appointed

  1. Roberts: 2 years (Bush)
  2. Alito: 15 years (Bush)
  3. Thomas: 1 year (Bush)
  4. Gorsuch: 11 years (Trump)
  5. Kavanaugh: 12 years (Trump)
  6. Barrett: 3 years (Trump)

Democrat Appointed

  1. Breyer: 14 years (Clinton)
  2. Kagan: 0 years (Obama)
  3. Sotomayor: 10 years (Obama)

From this perspective, we find that there were both Republican and Democrat appointees with little experience as a federal judge (though all of them obviously had lots of general legal exposure, from clerkships, to scholarship, to litigation).

Interestingly, the appointee with the least actual judgeship experience was Kagan.


What were some of the pet political line issues of Republican and Democratic appointees?

I picked two “hot button” issues that tend to be very politicized: abortion and gay marriage. I’ve grouped them based on decisions and statements to show whether they broadly favor or oppose each issue:

Abortion (more favorable): Breyer (D), Kagan (D), Sotomayor (D)

Abortion (less favorable): Alito (R), Barrett (R), Kavanaugh (R), Roberts (R), Thomas (R)

Abortion (neutral / no record): Gorsuch (R)

Gay marriage (more favorable): Roberts (R), Gorsuch (R), Breyer (D), Kagan (D), Sotomayor (D)

Gay marriage (less favorable): Alito (R), Thomas (R), Barrett (R)

Gay marriage (neutral / no record): Kavanaugh (R)


We can see that while there are some mixed opinions among Republican appointees, the Democrat appointees all hold the same stance. This brought me another thought - how have opinions been distributed over the past term year?

Alabama Assn. of Realtors v. Department of Health and Human Servs: 6 (R) - 3 (D)

Dunn v. Reeves: 6 (R) - 3 (D)

Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee: 6 (R) vs 3 (D)

Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta: 6 (R) vs 3 (D)

Minerva Surgical, Inc. v. Hologic, Inc.: 2 (R) 3 (D) vs 4 (R)

Johnson v. Guzman Chavez: 6 (R) vs 3 (D)

PennEast Pipeline Co. v. New Jersey: 4 (R) 1 (D) vs 2 (R) 2 (D)

TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez: 6 (R) vs 3 (D)

HollyFrontier Cheyenne Refining, LLC v. Renewable Fuels Assn.: 5 (R) 1 (D) vs 1 (R) 2 (D)

Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of Chehalis Reservation: 3 (R) 2 (D) vs 2 (R) 2 (D)

Lange v. California: Unanimous

Mahanoy Area School Dist. v. B. L.: 5 (R) 3 (D) vs 1 (R)


Though I did not review every case, it seemed apparent that the Democrat appointed judges most frequently ruled together, with Breyer (the Clinton appointee) breaking mainly on commerce issues.

Roberts, Gorsuch, and Barrett seem to be the most mentally flexible in their rulings.

I’ve invested 4-5 hours into exploring this topic. It would be interesting to write a script to parse all court decisions and group the opinions to show concur / dissent distributions.

From the research I have done, it seems that Democratic appointees are more frequently made upon political lines, especially Obama’s nominations (Kagan even came from University of Chicago, where she and Obama were friends and colleagues, whereas Trump never knew Barrett).

I am actually relieved to find as much dispersion as I have among supreme court votes. An interesting area for further exploration.