Chief Justice of the United States

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Chief Justice of the United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Seal of the Supreme Court
Official roberts CJ.jpg
Incumbent
John Roberts

since September 29, 2005
Supreme Court of the United States
Style Mr. Chief Justice
(informal)
Your Honor
(within court)
The Honorable
(formal)
Status Chief justice
Member of Federal judiciary
Judicial Conference
Administrative Office of the Courts
Seat Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C.
AppointerThe President
with Senate advice and consent
Term length Life tenure
Constituting instrument Constitution of the United States
FormationMarch 4, 1789
(231 years ago)
 (1789-03-04)
First holder John Jay
Website SupremeCourt.gov

The chief justice of the United States [1] [2] is the chief judge of the Supreme Court of the United States and the highest-ranking officer of the U.S. federal judiciary. Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution grants plenary power to the president of the United States to nominate, and with the advice and consent of the United States Senate, appoint a chief justice, who serves until they resign, retire, are impeached and convicted, or die.

Contents

The chief justice has significant influence in the selection of cases for review, presides when oral arguments are held, and leads the discussion of cases among the justices. Additionally, when the Court renders an opinion, the chief justice, if in the majority, chooses who writes the Court's opinion. When deciding a case, however, the chief justice's vote counts no more than that of any associate justice.

Article I, Section 3, Clause 6 of the Constitution designates the chief justice to preside during presidential impeachment trials in the Senate; this has occurred three times. Also, while nowhere mandated, the presidential oath of office is by tradition typically administered by the chief justice.

Additionally, the chief justice serves as a spokesperson for the federal government's judicial branch and acts as a chief administrative officer for the federal courts. The chief justice presides over the Judicial Conference and, in that capacity, appoints the director and deputy director of the Administrative Office. The chief justice is also an ex officio member of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution and, by custom, is elected chancellor of the board.

Since the Supreme Court was established in 1789, 17 people have served as chief justice, beginning with John Jay (1789–1795). The current chief justice is John Roberts (since 2005). Five of the 17 chief justices—John Rutledge, Edward Douglass White, Charles Evans Hughes, Harlan Fiske Stone, and William Rehnquist—served as associate justice prior to becoming chief justice.

Origin, title, and appointment

The United States Constitution does not explicitly establish an office of chief justice, but presupposes its existence with a single reference in Article I, Section 3, Clause 6: "When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside." Nothing more is said in the Constitution regarding the office. Article III, Section 1, which authorizes the establishment of the Supreme Court, refers to all members of the Court simply as "judges". The Judiciary Act of 1789 created the distinctive titles of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

In 1866, Salmon P. Chase assumed the title of Chief Justice of the United States and Congress began using the new title in subsequent legislation. [2] The first person whose Supreme Court commission contained the modified title was Melville Fuller in 1888. [3] The associate justices' title was not altered in 1866, and remains as originally created.

The chief justice, like all federal judges, is nominated by the president and confirmed to office by the U.S. Senate. Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution specifies that they "shall hold their Offices during good Behavior". This language means that the appointments are effectively for life, and that, once in office, justices' tenure ends only when they die, retire, resign, or are removed from office through the impeachment process. Since 1789, 15 presidents have made a total of 22 official nominations to the position. [4]

The salary of the chief justice is set by Congress; the current (2018) annual salary is $267,000, which is slightly higher than that of associate justices, which is $255,300. [5]

The practice of appointing an individual to serve as chief justice is grounded in tradition; while the Constitution mandates that there be a chief justice, it is silent on the subject of how one is chosen and by whom. There is no specific constitutional prohibition against using another method to select the chief justice from among those justices properly appointed and confirmed to the Supreme Court. Constitutional law scholar Todd Pettys has proposed that presidential appointment of chief justices should be done away with, and replaced by a process that permits the justices to select their own chief justice. [6]

Three incumbent associate justices have been nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate as chief justice: Edward Douglass White in 1910, Harlan Fiske Stone in 1941, and William Rehnquist in 1986. A fourth, Abe Fortas, was nominated to the position in 1968, but was not confirmed. As an associate justice does not have to resign his or her seat on the Court in order to be nominated as chief justice, Fortas remained an associate justice. Similarly, when associate justice William Cushing was nominated and confirmed as chief justice in January 1796, but declined the office, he too remained on the Court. Two former associate justices subsequently returned to service on the Court as chief justice. John Rutledge was the first. President Washington gave him a recess appointment in 1795. However, his subsequent nomination to the office was not confirmed by the Senate, and he left office and the Court. In 1930, former associate justice Charles Evans Hughes was confirmed as chief justice. Additionally, in December 1800, former chief justice John Jay was nominated and confirmed to the position a second time, but ultimately declined it, opening the way for the appointment of John Marshall. [4]

Powers and duties

Along with his general responsibilities as a member of the Supreme Court, the chief justice has several unique duties to fulfill.

Impeachment trials

Article I, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that the chief justice shall preside over the Senate trial of an impeached president of the United States. Three chief justices have presided over presidential impeachment trials: Salmon P. Chase (1868 trial of Andrew Johnson), William Rehnquist (1999 trial of Bill Clinton), and John Roberts (2020 trial of Donald Trump). All three presidents were acquitted in the Senate.

Also, though the Constitution is silent on the matter, the chief justice would, under Senate rules adopted in 1999 prior to the Clinton trial, preside over the trial of an impeached vice president. [7] [8] This rule was established to preclude the possibility of a vice president presiding over their own trial.

Seniority

Many of the Court's procedures and inner workings are governed by the rules of protocol based on the seniority of the justices. The chief justice always ranks first in the order of precedence—regardless of the length of the officeholder's service (even if shorter than that of one or more associate justices). This elevated status has enabled successive chief justices to define and refine both the Court's culture and its judicial priorities.

The chief justice sets the agenda for the weekly meetings where the justices review the petitions for certiorari, to decide whether to hear or deny each case. The Supreme Court agrees to hear less than one percent of the cases petitioned to it. While associate justices may append items to the weekly agenda, in practice this initial agenda-setting power of the chief justice has significant influence over the direction of the court. Nonetheless, a chief justice's influence may be limited by circumstances and the associate justices' understanding of legal principles; it is definitely limited by the fact that he has only a single vote of nine on the decision whether to grant or deny certiorari. [9] [10]

Despite the chief justice's elevated stature, his vote carries the same legal weight as the vote of each associate justice. Additionally, he has no legal authority to overrule the verdicts or interpretations of the other eight judges or tamper with them. [9] The task of assigning who shall write the opinion for the majority falls to the most senior justice in the majority. Thus, when the chief justice is in the majority, he always assigns the opinion. [11] Early in his tenure, Chief Justice John Marshall insisted upon holdings which the justices could unanimously back as a means to establish and build the Court's national prestige. In doing so, Marshall would often write the opinions himself, and actively discouraged dissenting opinions. Associate Justice William Johnson eventually persuaded Marshall and the rest of the Court to adopt its present practice: one justice writes an opinion for the majority, and the rest are free to write their own separate opinions or not, whether concurring or dissenting. [12]

The chief justice's formal prerogative—when in the majority—to assign which justice will write the Court's opinion is perhaps his most influential power, [10] as this enables him to influence the historical record. [9] He "may assign this task to the individual justice best able to hold together a fragile coalition, to an ideologically amenable colleague, or to himself." Opinion authors can have a big influence on the content of an opinion; two justices in the same majority, given the opportunity, might write very different majority opinions. [10] A chief justice who knows well the associate justices can therefore do much—by the simple act of selecting the justice who writes the opinion of the court—to affect the general character or tone of an opinion, which in turn can affect the interpretation of that opinion in cases before lower courts in the years to come.

Additionally, the chief justice chairs the conferences where cases are discussed and tentatively voted on by the justices. He normally speaks first and so has influence in framing the discussion. Although the chief justice votes first—the Court votes in order of seniority—he may strategically pass in order to ensure membership in the majority if desired. [10] It is reported that:

Chief Justice Warren Burger was renowned, and even vilified in some quarters, for voting strategically during conference discussions on the Supreme Court in order to control the Court’s agenda through opinion assignment. Indeed, Burger is said to have often changed votes to join the majority coalition, cast "phony votes" by voting against his preferred position, and declined to express a position at conference. [13]

Oath of office

The chief justice commonly administers the oath of office of the president of the United States. This is a tradition, rather than a constitutional responsibility of the chief justice; the Constitution does not require that the oath be administered by anyone in particular, simply that it be taken by the president. Law empowers any federal or state judge, as well as notaries public (such as John Calvin Coolidge, Sr.), to administer oaths and affirmations.

If the chief justice is ill or incapacitated, the oath is usually administered by the next senior member of the Supreme Court. Seven times, someone other than the chief justice of the United States administered the oath of office to the president. [14] Robert Livingston, as Chancellor of the State of New York (the state's highest ranking judicial office), administered the oath of office to George Washington at his first inauguration; there was no chief justice of the United States, nor any other federal judge prior to their appointments by President Washington in the months following his inauguration. William Cushing, an associate justice of the Supreme Court, administered Washington's second oath of office in 1793. Calvin Coolidge's father, a notary public, administered the oath to his son after the death of Warren Harding. [15] This, however, was contested upon Coolidge's return to Washington and his oath was re-administered by Judge Adolph A. Hoehling, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. [16] John Tyler and Millard Fillmore were both sworn in on the death of their predecessors by Chief Justice William Cranch of the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia. [17] Chester A. Arthur and Theodore Roosevelt's initial oaths reflected the unexpected nature of their taking office. On November 22, 1963, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Judge Sarah T. Hughes, a federal district court judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, administered the oath of office to then–vice president Lyndon B. Johnson aboard the presidential airplane.

In addition, the chief justice ordinarily administers the oath of office to newly appointed and confirmed associate justices, whereas the most senior associate justice will normally swear in a new chief justice or vice president.

Other duties

Since the tenure of William Howard Taft, the office of chief justice has moved beyond just first among equals. [18] The chief justice also:

Unlike Senators and Representatives, who are constitutionally prohibited from holding any other "office of trust or profit" of the United States or of any state while holding their congressional seats, the chief justice and the other members of the federal judiciary are not barred from serving in other positions. Chief Justice John Jay served as a diplomat to negotiate the so-called Jay Treaty (also known as the Treaty of London of 1794), Justice Robert H. Jackson was appointed by President Truman to be the U.S. prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials of leading Nazis, and Chief Justice Earl Warren chaired the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy. As described above, the chief justice holds office in the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress.

Disability or vacancy

Under 28 U.S.C.   § 3, when the chief justice is unable to discharge his functions, or when that office is vacant, the chief justice's duties are carried out by the most senior associate justice until the disability or vacancy ends. [6] Currently, since August 2018, Clarence Thomas is the most senior associate justice.

List of chief justices

Since the Supreme Court was established in 1789, the following 17 persons have served as Chief Justice: [21] [22]

Chief JusticeDate confirmed
(Vote)
Tenure [lower-alpha 1] Tenure lengthAppointed byPrior position [lower-alpha 2]
1 CJ Jay.tif John Jay
(1745–1829)
September 26, 1789
(Acclamation)
October 19, 1789

June 29, 1795
(resigned)
5 years, 253 days George Washington Acting
United States Secretary of State
(1789–1790)
2 John Rutledge.jpg John Rutledge
(1739–1800)
December 15, 1795
(10–14) [lower-alpha 3]
August 12, 1795 [lower-alpha 4]

December 28, 1795
(Resigned, nomination having been rejected)
138 daysChief Justice of the
South Carolina Court of
Common Pleas and Sessions
(1791–1795)
Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court

(1789–1791)
3 CJ Ellsworth.tif Oliver Ellsworth
(1745–1807)
March 4, 1796
(21–1)
March 8, 1796

December 15, 1800
(resigned)
4 years, 282 days United States Senator
from Connecticut
(1789–1796)
4 CJ Marshall copy.png John Marshall
(1755–1835)
January 27, 1801
(acclamation)
February 4, 1801

July 6, 1835
(died)
34 years, 152 days John Adams 4th
United States Secretary of State
(1800–1801)
5 CJ Taney.tif Roger B. Taney
(1777–1864)
March 15, 1836
(29–15)
March 28, 1836

October 12, 1864
(died)
28 years, 198 days Andrew Jackson 12th
United States Secretary
of the Treasury

(1833–1834)
6 CJ Chase.tif Salmon P. Chase
(1808–1873)
December 6, 1864
(acclamation)
December 15, 1864

May 7, 1873
(died)
8 years, 143 days Abraham Lincoln 25th
United States Secretary
of the Treasury

(1861–1864)
7 CJ Waite.tif Morrison Waite
(1816–1888)
January 21, 1874
(63–0)
March 4, 1874

March 23, 1888
(died)
14 years, 19 days Ulysses S. Grant Ohio State Senator
(1849–1850)
Presiding officer,
Ohio constitutional convention
(1873)
8 CJ Fuller.tif Melville Fuller
(1833–1910)
July 20, 1888
(41–20)
October 8, 1888

July 4, 1910
(died)
21 years, 269 days Grover Cleveland President,
Illinois State Bar Association
(1886)
Illinois State Representative
(1863–1865)
9 CJ White.tif Edward Douglass White
(1845–1921)
December 12, 1910 [lower-alpha 5]
(acclamation)
December 19, 1910

May 19, 1921
(died)
10 years, 151 days William Howard Taft Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court

(1894–1910)
10 CJ Taft.tif William Howard Taft
(1857–1930)
June 30, 1921
(acclamation)
July 11, 1921

February 3, 1930
(Retired)
8 years, 207 days Warren G. Harding 27th
President of the United States
(1909–1913)
11 CJ Hughes.tif Charles Evans Hughes
(1862–1948)
February 13, 1930
(52–26)
February 24, 1930

June 30, 1941
(Retired)
11 years, 126 days Herbert Hoover 44th
United States Secretary of State
(1921–1925)
Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court

(1910–1916)
12 CJ Stone.tif Harlan F. Stone
(1872–1946)
June 27, 1941 [lower-alpha 5]
(acclamation)
July 3, 1941

April 22, 1946
(died)
4 years, 293 days Franklin D. Roosevelt Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court

(1925–1941)
13 CJ Vinson.tif Fred M. Vinson
(1890–1953)
June 20, 1946
(acclamation)
June 24, 1946

September 8, 1953
(died)
7 years, 76 days Harry S. Truman 53rd
United States Secretary
of the Treasury

(1945–1946)
14 CJ Warren.tif Earl Warren
(1891–1974)
March 1, 1954
(acclamation)
October 5, 1953 [lower-alpha 4]

June 23, 1969
(Retired)
15 years, 261 days Dwight D. Eisenhower 30th
Governor of California
(1943–1953)
15 CJ Burger.tif Warren E. Burger
(1907–1995)
June 9, 1969
(74–3)
June 23, 1969

September 26, 1986
(Retired)
17 years, 95 days Richard Nixon Judge of the
United States Court of Appeals
for the District of Columbia Circuit

(1956–1969)
16 CJ Rehnquist.tif William Rehnquist
(1924–2005)
September 17, 1986 [lower-alpha 5]
(65–33)
September 26, 1986

September 3, 2005
(died)
18 years, 342 days Ronald Reagan Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court

(1972–1986)
17 CJ Roberts.tif John Roberts
(born 1955)
September 29, 2005
(78–22)
September 29, 2005

Incumbent
14 years, 157 days George W. Bush Judge of the
United States Court of Appeals
for the District of Columbia Circuit

(2003–2005)

Notes

  1. The start date given here for each chief justice is the day they took the oath of office, and the end date is the day of the justice's death, resignation, or retirement.
  2. Listed here (unless otherwise noted) is the position—either with a U.S. state or the federal government—held by the individual immediately prior to becoming Chief Justice of the United States.
  3. This was the first Supreme Court nomination to be rejected by the United States Senate. Rutledge remains the only "recess appointed" justice not to be subsequently confirmed by the Senate.
  4. 1 2 Recess appointment. Note: the date on which the justice took the judicial oath is here used as the date of the beginning of their service, not the date of the recess appointment.
  5. 1 2 3 Elevated from associate justice to chief justice while serving on the Supreme Court. The nomination of a sitting associate justice to be chief justice is subject to a separate confirmation process.

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Further reading