A graduate of Wicomico High School in Salisbury, Sarbanes received an academic and athletic scholarship to Princeton University, earning a bachelor's degree in 1954. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship that brought him to Balliol College in Oxford, England, graduating first in his class in 1957. Sarbanes then returned to the United States and attended Harvard Law School.
After graduating in 1960, he clerked for Federal Judge Morris A. Soper before entering private practice with two Baltimore, Maryland law firms. In June 1960, Sarbanes married Christine Dunbar of Brighton, England; they have three children (John Sarbanes, Michael Anthony Sarbanes, and Janet Matina Sarbanes) and six grandchildren. Sarbanes is a member of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore.
In 1966, Sarbanes ran for the Maryland House of Delegates in Baltimore City and won. During his four years as a State delegate in Annapolis, Maryland he served on both the Judiciary and the Ways and Means Committees.
He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1970 and was reelected in 1972 and 1974. While in the House, Sarbanes served on the Judiciary Committee, the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee and the Select Committee on House Reorganization. It was during his service in the House, in August 1974, that Sarbanes was selected by his Democratic colleagues on the House Watergate Committee to introduce the first Article of Impeachment, for obstruction of justice, against President Richard M. Nixon.
In 1976, Sarbanes was elected to the United States Senate and reelected in 1982, 1988, 1994 and 2000. In 2002, Sarbanes was the Senate sponsor of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which reformed federal securities laws in the wake of the 2002 corporate accounting scandals. Among other things, it made a company's CEO responsible for all accounting statements submitted by that company.
Senator Sarbanes served on the following Senate committees:
- Ranking Member of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
- Senior Member Foreign Relations Committee.
- Senior Member Budget Committee.
- Senior Member Joint Economic Committee.