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The Chief Justice: A Key Player in the Courts

Photo of the US Supreme Court building

The Supreme Court is at the top of the judicial food chain in the United States. It has the authority to review any case that involves federal law originating from either federal or state courts.

This gives it a broad range of power when it comes to deciding the outcomes of various legal disputes.

It is the ultimate arbiter of justice in the United States.

What is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States?

The Chief Justice is the head of the Justices of the United States Supreme Court. The Chief Justice has one vote on the outcome of each case which is the same as any other Justice. However, the Chief Justice’s duties give them a great deal of influence over which cases the court takes, when it takes them, and how discussions around the cases unfold.

The Chief Justice also acts as a spokesperson for the whole judicial branch of the US government, presides over impeachment trials in the Senate, and acts as the chief administrative officer of the federal court system.

The Supreme Court

The Chief Justice sits on the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme court sits at the top of the judicial hierarchy in the United States, with a wide range of discretionary appellate jurisdiction over any federal and state court cases that involve federal law.

The court can exercise judicial review, a process that allows it to invalidate a law that runs contrary to the Constitution of the United States.

The United States Supreme Court decides many influential cases each year. Its ability to interpret the Constitution and determine the validity of contentious laws that skirt the edges of the Constitution gives it a great deal of political power. 

The Chief Justice’s Extra Powers

Choosing The Opinion

The Chief Justice is viewed as the most senior member of the court, regardless of the actual seniority of the other members. This often comes into play when the court rules a case.

Traditionally, the most senior justice in the majority chooses who writes the majority opinion. If the Chief Justice is in the majority, they will always get to choose who authors the court’s ruling. This can have a tremendous impact, as two justices who vote the same way may do so for different reasons.

Statue of Lady Justice
The Chief Justice has a great deal of say on which cases are heard before the Supreme Court.

Setting The Schedule

An additional benefit of the Chief Justice’s seniority is setting the schedule of the United States Supreme Court’s weekly meetings. During these meetings, the court reviews petitions for certiorari.

Certiorari refers to an order issued by a higher court to a lower court directing it to send up the record of a case for review.

As these petitions decide which cases the Supreme Court hears, the Chief Justice can exert a tremendous amount of influence over which cases come before their court.

Chief Justice Has Only One Vote

While these powers give the Chief Justice a great deal of sway over the court’s opinions, they still only control one of nine votes. The Chief Justice’s influence is therefore limited by the cooperation of the other eight judges. If the Chief Justice is not in the majority, their seniority means nothing when it comes to choosing who writes the opinion. 

The Chief Justice can adjust the calendar, giving certain cases increased or decreased chances of being heard. Yet, the other justices can still override this schedule if they disagree.

It’s worth noting that this system of checks and balances ensures that no one person can dominate the court. This level of collaboration ensures fairness and impartiality, which is essential to maintaining justice.

The Chief Justice’s Miscellaneous Powers

In addition to their duties on the court, the Chief Justice enjoys several other powers in government. The Chief Justice is traditionally the one to swear in a new president with the oath of office.

No law says the Chief Justice has to play this role, but the oath of office has only been administered by someone else on eight occasions.

Some of the notable cases are:

  1. In 1865, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney died before he could administer the oath to President Andrew Johnson. Instead, Associate Justice Salmon P. Chase swore in Johnson.

  2. In 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in by a state judge, not the Chief Justice.

  3. In 1945, Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone was unable to administer the oath to President Harry S. Truman due to illness. Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson stepped in and swore in Truman.

  4. In 1963, Chief Justice Earl Warren was recovering from surgery and could not administer the oath to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Associate Justice Arthur J. Goldberg stepped in and swore in Johnson.

Photo US Chief Justice Earl Warren
Chief Justice Earl Warren administered the oath of office to Richard M. Nixon.


Presiding Over Impeachment

The Constitution gives the Chief Justice the power to preside over presidential impeachment trials. One recent occasion is with Donald Trump.

As presidential impeachment trials are very rare, this power seldom comes up. While the Chief Justice gets the first ruling on matters like the relevance of evidence and any objections filed by either side, the Senate has the final say.

Any senator can call for a vote on a ruling and override the Chief Justice with a simple majority vote.

Appointing Judges To Special Courts

The Chief Justice appoints federal judges to several special courts, like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which grants agencies like the FBI surveillance warrants against suspected foreign agents, and the United States Alien Terrorist Removal Court, which determines when aliens that have been accused of being terrorists are deported.

The Chief Justice also appoints members of the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, which helps govern cases where related actions have been filed in different districts.

Making The Court’s Rules

The Chief Justice also is the head of the Judicial Conference of the United States, which proposes rules that govern the operation of the federal courts. These rules are subject to review by Congress.

Many of the Judicial Conference’s rules, like the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence, have been adopted by states and considered canon by every law school.

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