Tuesday, September 13, 2005


WHAT DOES THE CHIEF JUSTICE DO ANYWAYS? In light of the confirmation hearings and current "water-cooler talk" with fellow attorneys (such exciting lives we lead . . .), it would appear that there is some uncertainty over what the responsibilities of the Chief Justice of the United States.

In addition to the duties of the Associate Justices, the Chief Justice has the following duties:

  • In any vote, the most senior Justice in the majority has the power to decide who will write the Opinion of the Court.
  • Chairs the conferences where cases are discussed and voted on by the Justices. The Chief Justice normally speaks first, and so has great influence in framing the discussion.
  • Preside when the Senate tries an impeachment of the President of the United States.
  • Administers the oath of office at the inauguration of the President of the United States.
  • Serves as the head of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the chief administrative body of the U.S. federal courts. The Judicial Conference is empowered by the Rules Enabling Act to promulgate rules to ensure the smooth operation of the federal courts.

While most people are at least generally aware of the above duties, there are some additional duties bestowed upon the Chief Justice that may be lesser known:

  • Serves as the Chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution;
  • Approve appointments and salaries of some court employees;
  • Approve rules for the Supreme Court library;
  • Approve appointments made by the Architect of the Capitol of employees to care for the Supreme Court building and grounds;
  • Approve regulations prescribed by the marshal of the Supreme Court for protection of the Supreme Court building and grounds;
  • Appoint two members of the judiciary to the Commission on Executive, Legislative and Judicial Salaries;
  • Authorized to report to the president that the chief judge of the Court of Claims, the Customs Court or the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals has become unable to discharge his duties;
  • Designated chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution;
  • Named to the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery of Art; and
  • Named to the Board of Trustees of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

An interesting factoid is that the office is often, but incorrectly, referred to as "Chief Justice of the Supreme Court." The United States Code specifies the title as "Chief Justice of the United States," and thus, not just of the Court itself. The title changed at the suggestion of Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, who wished to emphasize the Court's role as a coequal branch of government. By contrast, the other eight members of the Court are Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, not "Associate Justices of the United States."

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