Chief Justice of the United States

Chief Justice of the United States
Chief Justice of the
United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
John G. Roberts, Jr.

since September 29, 2005
Style Mister Chief Justice
Appointer Presidential nomination with Senate confirmation
Term length Life tenure
Inaugural holder John Jay
September 26, 1789
Formation U.S. Constitution
March 4, 1789
United States

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The Chief Justice of the United States is the head of the United States federal court system (the judicial branch of the federal government of the United States) and the chief judge of the Supreme Court of the United States. The Chief Justice is one of nine Supreme Court justices; the other eight are the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. From 1789 until 1866, the office was known as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

The Chief Justice is the highest judicial officer in the country, and acts as a chief administrative officer for the federal courts and appoints the director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. The Chief Justice also serves as a spokesperson for the judicial branch.

The Chief Justice leads the business of the Supreme Court. He or she presides over oral arguments before the Court. When the Court renders an opinion, the Chief Justice—when in the majority—decides who writes the Court's opinion. Finally, the Chief Justice has significant agenda-setting power over the Court's meetings. In the case of an impeachment of a President of the United States, which has occurred twice, the Chief Justice presides over the trial in the Senate. In modern tradition, the Chief Justice also has the ceremonial duty of administering the oath of office of the President of the United States.

The first Chief Justice was John Jay. The 17th and current Chief Justice is John G. Roberts, Jr.


Origin, title, and appointment to the post

The United States Constitution does not explicitly establish the 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, including any further distinction between the Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, who are never mentioned as such in the Constitution.

The office was originally known as "Chief Justice of the Supreme Court" and is still often informally referred to using that title. However, 28 U.S.C. § 1 specifies the official title as "Chief Justice of the United States." The title was changed from Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by Congress in 1866 at the suggestion of the sixth Chief Justice, Salmon P. Chase.[1] Chase wished to emphasize the Court's role as a co-equal branch of government. The first Chief Justice commissioned using the new title was Melville Fuller in 1888.[1] Use of the previous title when referring to Chief Justices John Jay through Roger B. Taney is technically correct, as that was the official title during their time on the Court, but the newer title is frequently used retroactively for all Chief Justices.

The other eight members of the Court are officially Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, not "Associate Justices of the United States." In fact, the Chief Justice is the only member of the Court to whom the Constitution refers as a "Justice," and only in Article I. Article III of the Constitution refers to all members of the Supreme Court (and of other federal courts) simply as "Judges."

The Chief Justice, like all other federal judges, is nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed to sit on the Court by the Senate. The U.S. Constitution states that all justices of the Court "shall hold their offices during good behavior," meaning that the appointments only end when a justice dies in office, resigns, or is impeached by the House of Representatives and convicted by the Senate. The salary of the Chief Justice is set by Congress; the Constitution prohibits Congress from lowering the Chief Justice's salary during the Chief Justice's tenure on the Court. As of 2010, the salary is set at $223,500 per year, which is slightly higher than that of the Associate Justices.[2]

Traditionally, the Chief Justice is appointed by the President of the United States. However, there is no express constitutional prohibition against using another method to select the Chief Justice from among those Justices properly appointed and confirmed, and at least one scholar has proposed that presidential appointment should be done away with, and replaced by permitting the Justices to select their own Chief Justice.[3]

Some Chief Justices, like William Rehnquist, were elevated by the President while serving on the bench as an Associate Justice. Justices who are elevated to the position of Chief Justice from that of an Associate Justice must again be confirmed by the Senate (a rejection by the Senate, however, does not end their tenure as an Associate Justice). Most Chief Justices, including John Roberts, have been nominated to the highest position on the Court without any previous experience on the Court; indeed some, like Earl Warren, were selected without any prior judicial experience.

Eighteen people have been nominated for Chief Justice and confirmed by the Senate—seventeen have served. William Cushing was chosen in January 1796 but declined the office. Oliver Ellsworth served instead. The Senate subsequently confirmed John Jay to replace Ellsworth, though Jay declined to resume his former office, citing both the burden of riding circuit and its impact on his health, and his perception of the Court's lack of prestige. John Marshall was nominated and confirmed shortly afterward.

Where the Chief Justice dies in office or is otherwise unwilling or unable to serve, the duties of the Chief Justice pass to the most senior sitting Justice, who serves as Acting Chief Justice until a new Chief Justice is confirmed.[3][4]


Along with the duties of the associate justices, the Chief Justice has several unique duties.

Impeachment trials

Article I, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that the Chief Justice shall preside over impeachment trials of the President of the United States in the U.S. Senate. Two Chief Justices, Salmon P. Chase and William Rehnquist, have presided over the trial in the Senate that follows an impeachment of the President – Chase in 1868 over the proceedings against President Andrew Johnson and Rehnquist in 1999 over the proceedings against President Bill Clinton.


The Chief Justice is considered to be the justice with most seniority, independent of the number of years of service in the Court. As a result, the Chief Justice chairs the conferences where cases are discussed and voted on by the justices. The Chief Justice normally speaks first, and so has influence in framing the discussion.

John Marshall, the fourth and longest serving Chief Justice.

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.

Despite the seniority and added prestige, the Chief Justice's vote carries the same legal weight as each of the other eight justices. In any decision, he has no legal authority to overrule the verdicts or interpretations of the other eight judges or tamper with them. However, in any vote, the most senior justice in the majority decides who will write the Opinion of the Court. Being the most senior member, the Chief Justice—when in the majority—decides who writes the Court's opinion. This power to determine the opinion author (including the option to select oneself) allows a Chief Justice in the majority to influence the historical record. Two justices in the same majority, given the opportunity, might write very different majority opinions (as evidenced by many concurring opinions); being assigned the opinion may also cement the vote of an Associate who is viewed as only marginally in the majority (a tactic that was reportedly used to some effect by Earl Warren). A Chief Justice who knows 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 "flavor" of the opinion, which in turn can affect the interpretation of that opinion in cases before lower courts in the years to come. It is said that some chief justices, notably Earl Warren[citation needed] and Warren Burger, sometimes switched votes to a majority they disagreed with to be able to use this prerogative of the Chief Justice to dictate who would write the opinion.[5]

Oath of office

The Chief Justice typically administers the oath of office at the inauguration of the President of the United States. This is a traditional rather than 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 and state judge, as well as notaries public, to administer oaths and affirmations.

William Rehnquist (left) takes the oath as Chief Justice from retiring Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1986, as his wife, Natalie, holds the Bible and President Ronald Reagan (far right) looks on.

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.[6] 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.[7] This, however, was contested upon Coolidge's return to Washington and his oath was re-administered by Judge Adolph A. Hoehling, Jr. of the District of Columbia Supreme Court.[8] United States District Court Judge Sarah T. Hughes administered the oath to Lyndon Johnson after the John F. Kennedy assassination. Vice Presidents 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.[9] Chester A. Arthur and Theodore Roosevelt's initial oaths reflected the unexpected nature of their taking office.

In addition, the Chief Justice ordinarily administers the oath of office to newly appointed and confirmed Associate Justices, whereas the Senior Associate Justice will normally swear in a new Chief Justice.

Other duties

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 (aka The Treaty of London of 1794), 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 USC 3, when the Chief Justice is unable to discharge his functions, or that office is vacant, his duties are carried out by the most senior associate justice who is able to act, until the disability or vacancy ends.

List of Chief Justices

§ Recess appointment, later rejected by the Senate on December 15, 1795
¤ Previously served as an Associate Justice, but at a time disconnected to service as Chief Justice
° Elevated from Associate Justice
Previous service as U.S. President
Died in office
No. Chief Justice Image Term of Office Nominated by President
1 John Jay John Jay 1.png September 26, 1789–June 29, 1795 George Washington
2 John Rutledge §, ¤ John Rutledge.jpg July 1, 1795–December 28, 1795
3 Oliver Ellsworth Oliver Ellsworth.jpg March 4, 1796–September 30, 1800
4 John Marshall CJMarshall.jpg January 31, 1801–July 6, 1835† John Adams (F)
5 Roger B. Taney Roger Taney - Healy.jpg March 15, 1836–October 12, 1864† Andrew Jackson (D)
6 Salmon P. Chase Mathew Brady, Portrait of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, officer of the United States government (1860–1865, full version).jpg December 6, 1864–May 7, 1873† Abraham Lincoln (R)
7 Morrison Waite Chief Justice Morrison Waite.jpg March 4, 1874–March 23, 1888† Ulysses S. Grant (R)
8 Melville Fuller Melville Weston Fuller Chief Justice 1908.jpg October 8, 1888–July 4, 1910† Grover Cleveland (D)
9 Edward Douglass White ° Edward White, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly left, 1905.jpg December 19, 1910–May 19, 1921† William Howard Taft (R)
10 William Howard Taft William Howard Taft as Chief Justice SCOTUS.jpg July 11, 1921–February 3, 1930 Warren G. Harding (R)
11 Charles Evans Hughes ¤ Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes.jpg February 24, 1930–June 30, 1941 Herbert Hoover (R)
12 Harlan Fiske Stone ° Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone photograph circa 1927-1932.jpg July 3, 1941–April 22, 1946† Franklin D. Roosevelt (D)
13 Fred M. Vinson Fred m vinson.jpg June 24, 1946–September 8, 1953† Harry S. Truman (D)
14 Earl Warren Earl Warren.jpg October 5, 1953–June 23, 1969 Dwight D. Eisenhower (R)
15 Warren E. Burger Warren e burger photo.jpeg June 23, 1969–September 26, 1986 Richard Nixon (R)
16 William Rehnquist ° William Rehnquist.jpg September 26, 1986–September 3, 2005† Ronald Reagan (R)
17 John G. Roberts Official roberts CJ.jpg September 29, 2005–present George W. Bush (R)

See also


  1. ^ a b "History of the Federal Judiciary". Retrieved 2011-08-17. 
  2. ^ "". 2010-01-27. Retrieved 2010-05-15. 
  3. ^ a b Pettys, Todd E. (2006). "Choosing a Chief Justice: Presidential Prerogative or a Job for the Court?". Journal of Law & Politicis 22: 231. 
  4. ^ 28 U.S.C. §§3-4.
  5. ^ See for example the description of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering after Roe v. Wade was argued the first time, in Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong's The Brethren.
  6. ^ Library of Congress. "Presidential Inaugurations: Presidential Oaths of Office."
  7. ^ "Excerpt from Coolidge's autobiography". Retrieved 2010-05-15. 
  8. ^ "Prologue: Selected Articles". Retrieved 2010-05-15. 
  9. ^ "Presidential Swearing-In Ceremony, Part 5 of 6". Retrieved 2011-08-17. 
  10. ^ "Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress". Library of Congress. 2006-03-06. Retrieved 2008-01-14. 

Further reading

  • Abraham, Henry J. (1992). Justices and Presidents: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-506557-3. 
  • Cushman, Clare (2001). The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1995 (2nd ed.). (Supreme Court Historical Society, Congressional Quarterly Books). ISBN 1568021267. 
  • Flanders, Henry. The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1874 at Google Books.
  • Frank, John P. (1995). Friedman, Leon; Israel, Fred L.. eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. Chelsea House Publishers. ISBN 0791013774. 
  • Hall, Kermit L., ed (1992). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195058356. 
  • Martin, Fenton S.; Goehlert, Robert U. (1990). The U.S. Supreme Court: A Bibliography. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Books. ISBN 0871875543. 
  • Urofsky, Melvin I. (1994). The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland Publishing. p. 590. ISBN 0815311761. 

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