I cannot find any information explaining why judges that sit on a Supreme Court are referred to as "justices," and judges that sit on a lower court are "judges." Everything I've found seems to indicate that it is just for identification purposes to know when someone is talking about a supreme court as opposed to a lower court.

I would imagine that the distinction is found in the English common law system, but I'm at a loss as to what caused the distinction other than a quick and easy way to distinguish between the level of the court in question. I am interested in any answers from outside the US-UK world as well.

  • 5
    Maybe english.stackexchange.com would be better?
    – Opt
    Commented Mar 13, 2012 at 0:04
  • @Sid perhaps, but I really would like to know the historical reason as to why they are different.
    – ihtkwot
    Commented Mar 13, 2012 at 13:52

1 Answer 1


Based on my research, I can posit what I believe to be a satisfactory answer in terms of US terminology. The US refers to the U.S. supreme court members as "justices" all the way back to the Judiciary Act of 1789. The more salient point is in Article II. section 2 of the US Constitution gives the presidency the uncontested authority to appoint the "Judges of the supreme court".

Now I had come across several sites which suggested that the difference between a judge and a justice (not necessarily limited to the US) was that the former required a law degree and the latter did not. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook 2010-2011 had the following to say about Judges, Magistrates, and Other Judicial Workers.

A bachelor's degree and work experience are the minimum requirements for a judgeship or magistrate position, but most workers have law degrees and some are elected; training requirements for arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators vary.

Essentially, while the US constitution grants the president to pick anyone they damn well choose regardless of qualification to the supreme court, judgeships seem to have more requirements on paper. Granted the high level of scrutiny of supreme court appointments and the presidential advantage of appointing a lifetime sitting justice has kept ham sandwiches from being appointed (regardless of one might think of Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas, they certainly are not sandwiches).

Based on the fact that the US judicial system was modeled on the English common law system, the terminology almost certainly came from there and is likely to have a similar meaning. Although I couldn't find any etymological evidence to this effect, I certainly wouldn't be surprised if the terminology came from the relationship between the "justices" and the crown. While all magistrates in English common law of the early American period all served at the behest of the crown, the American relationship and the more lofty title seem to suggest a higher level of prestige awarded to a justice as opposed to a judge.

  • this is a good answer, but as I know pretty much all of US legal tradition at the beginning came from the English common law system I'm looking for an answer in English common law. I know it has to be there.
    – ihtkwot
    Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 3:09
  • Another theory (just that) might be that the word "justice" in the meaning of supreme court judge is somehow derived from the Justiciar (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justiciar). Commented Dec 14, 2012 at 14:11

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