This article picked by a teacher with suggested questions is part of the Financial Times free schools access programme. Details/registration here.


  • AQA Component The judicial branch of government

  • Edexcel Component 3A: Section 4: US Supreme Court and civil rights

Background: what you need to know 

Stephen Breyer, at 82 the oldest US Supreme Court justice, is under pressure from progressives to retire, even though he is himself a liberal. This is because of the political nature of appointments, which the Constitution places in the hands of the President. US justices are entitled to serve for life, so if they die whilst a chief executive of the opposing party is in office, they can be succeeded by someone with a very different philosophy.

This happened in the final months of Donald Trump’s presidency, when the long-serving liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg was replaced by the conservative Amy Coney Barrett. This is why, for liberals, it would be better for Breyer to retire now, giving President Biden the opportunity to appoint a younger justice with the same outlook, who would presumably have many years of service ahead. The article reminds us that senior judicial appointments have to be ratified by the Senate, which is currently evenly balanced between Republicans and Democrats. Republican leader Mitch McConnell is likely to obstruct a Biden nomination if his party makes gains in the November 2022 midterm elections — a political argument for Breyer to go sooner rather than later.

Click to read the articles below and then answer the questions:

Breyer under mounting pressure to relinquish Supreme Court seat

Also follow the link to read about the commission which is looking into reforms of the Court, including proposals to expand the number of justices beyond the current maximum of nine. This might enable Democrats to alter the balance of the Court to weaken the current conservative dominance.

Using the article

Depending on the examination board you are following, plan an answer to one of the two following questions:

Using the information in the article, and other sources available to you, answer one of the following questions, depending on which exam board specification you are following.

Question in the style of AQA Politics Paper 2

  • Explain and analyse three ways in which the US Supreme Court acts as a political rather than a judicial body. [9 marks]

Question in the style of Edexcel Politics Paper 3A

  • Examine the differences between the role and composition of the US and UK Supreme Courts. [12 marks]

    TIP: The article notes two features of the appointments procedure for the US Supreme Court — the role of the President and the Senate in the process, and the fact that US justices have no retirement age. How does this differ from the system used in the UK?

Graham Goodlad, St John’s College

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article