How are Judges selected in the United States?

Published 01/13/2021

Judge Selection: A Brief History

There are few topics in United States history that have been debated as passionately or for as long as the method of selecting judges. During colonial times one of the colonists biggest issues with the judicial selection process was that the King had the authority to appoint judges. After the American Revolution the Founders initially decided that the appointment method was still appropriate, however by the early 1800s two states had modified their selection process laws to allow for elections to take part in the selection method. 

What Are The Types of Courts?

In addition to there being two methods of selecting judges - the appointment and election methods - there are also two broad types of courts (with other branches beneath each) within the United States judicial system. These courts are the Federal Courts and the State Courts and each has different selection methods.

Federal Courts

The Federal courts decide cases that involve parties from different states, federal laws, or Constitutional rights. The federal courts have two categories: Article I and Article III courts or tribunals. Each category is named after its creation within the United States Constitution and pertains to different types of courts and tribunals. 

Article I courts are created by Article I of the Constitution as they pertain to the Legislative Branch of government. These tribunals consist of the United States Tax Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the Court of Military Commission Review, the United States Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims, the United States Court of Federal Claims, and the United States Bankruptcy Courts. The validity of some Article I courts has been tried before the Supreme Court of the United States.


Article III courts are also created by the United States Constitution in that Article III pertains specifically to the Judicial Branch of government. These courts are the more commonly known Federal courts with judges presiding over cases between citizens (or corporations) that are challenging Federal, admiralty, or maritime law. Additionally, these Federal courts also preside over cases where the parties are in two different states and there is a disagreement over prevailing law or jurisdiction. 

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the country and is a Federal Court. The Supreme Court presides over cases in which the decision may impact the ability to establish or uphold other Federal or State laws and also where the standing of a case or its decision requires review as it pertains to the Constitution. Landmark Supreme Court cases, such as Brown v. Board of Education, become the basis for Constitutional interpretation on specific matters and must stand within every jurisdiction in the country even if the case was brought only by one jurisdiction at the time. 

Federal court judges (of which there are hundreds upon hundreds in the country, from district court judges up to the Supreme Court justices) are nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate. These judges are often recommended by members of the President’s political party and, once confirmed, are a lifetime appointment.

State Courts
State courts are all together the more commonly known court system in the United States. These courts handle disputes between parties within the same state and also preside over cases dealing with state criminal and civil law.

The method of selecting state judges varies from state to state depending on the methods outlined within each state’s constitution. The options available for selection - from the State Supreme Court down to District Court judges - include popular election, partisan election, and gubernatorial appointment. Additionally, the tenure of state judges varies - some are lifetime appointments while others are held for a shorter, predetermined duration. In Rhode Island, State Supreme Court judges are given lifetime appointments whereas in Massachusetts they may serve for life or until they reach a mandatory retirement age.

What Is The Appointment Method?

The appointment method of selecting a judge is exactly what it sounds like - the judge is appointed by the highest executive level leader in the jurisdiction. For Federal Courts that means the President of the United States appoints justices to all Federal courts. At the State level, when prescribed by the State’s Constitution, Governor’s have the authority to make appointments. 

What Is The Election Method?

As it sounds, the Election method is when a judge is elected to their position. This method of selection - including the tenure and specific election method - is governed by each State’s Constitution and could even vary by district within the State. In these instances they may be elected by popular vote during general or special elections or by partisan vote by the ruling political party in a given state.