Back in the 19th century, geographic diversity was the most important factor, as Southerners sought to maintain the institution of slavery. But over time, and with a little prodding, the court grew to represent the increasing diversity of the country. Roger Taney became the first Catholic justice in 1836, despite the wide prevalence of anti-Catholic sentiment; he was followed by Louis Brandeis as the first Jewish justice in 1916. Thurgood Marshall became the first black justice in 1967, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first female justice in 1981, and Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic justice in 2009.
For almost 50 years, though, the nation's highest court has been without a single immigrant justice. That may be about to change.
In an interview last weekend with CNN's Candy Crowley, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm revealed that she is on the Obama administration's short list of candidates to replace outgoing Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. It was, she said, a "great honor" to be considered.
While Granholm is a state executive rather than a sitting judge, her nomination would also be noteworthy for another reason: She would be the first foreign-born justice to sit on the court since Austrian-born Felix Frankfurter retired in 1962.
Granholm, who is now an American citizen but was born in Canada, would join the five other immigrants who have sat on the nation's highest court. According to Supreme Court historian and University of Texas professor Lucas Powe, the foreign-born justices were each remarkable in some respect. "There's five of them," he said, "and not a single one that was undistinguished."
Despite being ineligible for the highest office in the land, the following five justices have nevertheless all had an enormous impact on the jurisprudence and public policy of their adopted homeland:
Appointed by: George Washington
Career prior to the court: Wilson immigrated to Pennsylvania as a young man and established a law practice there. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, he was elected to the Continental Congress. He became a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.
Notable because: He was the inaugural member of the first six-member Supreme Court and helped decide the first seven cases ever argued before it. According to Powe, Wilson "clearly had the best [legal] mind" on the court at the time.
Birthplace: Lewes, England
Appointed by: George Washington
Career prior to the court: Iredell was an English customs official assigned to North Carolina before the outbreak of the American Revolution. He studied law during his posting and was admitted to practice in 1770. With the start of the war, he sided with the colonists and became a prominent lawyer and North Carolina politician.
Notable because: "He was the best lawyer of the 18th-century justices," said Powe. Like Wilson, Iredell helped to establish early case law and lay the groundwork for the brand-new judicial branch.
David Josiah Brewer
Birthplace: Smyrna, Asia Minor (now Izir, Turkey)
Appointed by: Benjamin Harrison
Career prior to the court: Born to missionary parents in modern-day Turkey, Brewer grew up in Connecticut and attended Wesleyan University and Yale. He set out for the West, becoming a Kansas frontier lawyer. Later in life, he served as both a federal and state judge, before his appointment to the Supreme Court.
Notable because: According to Powe, Brewer was one of the most influential justices the court at the time. He was a vigorous defender of minority rights. In one case, he argued for stronger labor protections for women, while in other opinions he argued passionately for the rights of marginalized Chinese and Japanese immigrants.
Birthplace: Buckinghamshire, England
Appointed by: Warren G. Harding
Career prior to the court: Born in England, Sutherland and his parents settled in Utah after immigrating. He graduated from Brigham Young, and then attended the University of Michigan for law school. He was elected to represent Utah in Congress, first as a congressman and later as a senator. He was defeated for re-election as a senator in 1916 and became a confidant of President Harding before being appointed to the Supreme Court.
Notable because: Sutherland was famed for his principled opposition to President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. He also helped overturn the convictions of the nine "Scottsboro Boys" accused of sexual assault and ruled that people could not be excluded from juries because of their race.
Birthplace: Vienna, Austria (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire)
Appointed by: Franklin Roosevelt
Career prior to the court: "If you could leave money out of it, it's Horatio Algiers," said Powe. "He went to the top of his professions by sheer ability." In Vienna, Frankfurter mastered English and went on to graduate from both City College of New York and Harvard Law. His legal career was long and varied, with stints in private practice, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the War Department. He eventually became a professor at Harvard Law, and a Zionist delegate to the World War I peace conference before his eventual appointment to the court.
Notable because: Despite his reputation as an enthusiastic New Deal liberal, Frankfurter was a judicial conservative who didn't believe in using the courts to make policy. He carried on the tradition of moderation and respect for judicial process of his mentor and confidant, Justice Brandeis, during his 23-year tenure on the court.