What is the Chief Justice?

Photo of the US Supreme Court building

The Chief Justice Of The United States

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

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. 

Similarly, while the Chief Justice can change the schedule to make certain cases more or less likely to be granted cert, they can still be outvoted by the other justices.

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 traditionally is 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.

Photo US Chief Justice Earl Warren
Chief Justice Earl Warren administering 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. 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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