What makes a great Supreme Court justice?

Leah Ward Sears, former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, now partner at the Atlanta office of Schiff Hardin, LLP

"Socrates once said that there are four things a judge must do: (1) hear courteously, (2) answer wisely, (3) consider soberly, and (4) decide impartially. And I’m sure, if he were alive today, Socrates would also say the job calls for all jurists to have credible education, experience and temperament. And I agree with him.

However, I believe that Socrates’ advice falls a bit short in describing what it takes to truly be a great judge. To his list of qualifications, I’d add the following traits:

First, a judge must be a person with strong character. A judge who has strong character has the ability to apply broad, general law to a narrow, specific set of facts without abusing the court’s authority, letting his or her personal views get in the way, or overlooking important facts and law.

Second, a judge should be a visionary. The judiciary is responsible for making sure our laws serve justice and uphold the Constitution. When our laws fail to do so, a judge should search for a way, within the confines of the law, to right a wrong and see that justice is done, even in the face of a disapproving majority.

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Finally, a judge should be a patriotic American. By this, I mean that a judge must be concerned for the country and the people the law serves more than his or her personal agenda or self-interest. I’ve admired many justices past and present, but I named my daughter after William Brennan."

Peter "Bo" Rutledge, associate professor, University of Georgia School of Law and former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas

"Justices must have intellectual integrity. Supreme Court justices ordinarily are accountable only to their own consciences. So they must have an unflappable commitment to core legal principles even when unpopular, as John Marshall Harlan showed on matters of race in the late 19th century.

Justices must have an instinct for the jugular of a case. The court’s work requires them to digest a vast corpus of material. Justices like Oliver Wendell Holmes could strip away irrelevant matter and identify the key legal questions on which cases turned.

Justices must never lose sight of the practical effects of their decisions. A question of criminal law may determine whether someone dies; a question of tax law may shape entire industries. Civil rights pioneers like Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, business lawyers like Louis Brandeis, and military veterans like John Paul Stevens helped the court remain sensitive to these realities.

Justices must be able to build consensus. The court’s opinions only have force when a majority agrees; fractured decisions leave people struggling to understand what the law means. Justices like John Marshall and Earl Warren were exceptional consensus builders and held the court together in critical cases."

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