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

since September 29, 2005
Supreme Court of the United States
Style Mr. Chief Justice
Your Honor
(within court)
The Honorable
Status Chief justice
Member of Federal judiciary
Judicial Conference
Administrative Office of the Courts
Seat Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C.
Appointer The President
with Senate advice and consent
Term length Life tenure
Constituting instrument Constitution of the United States
Formation March 4, 1789; 233 years ago (1789-03-04)
First holder John Jay

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.

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 (2019) annual salary is $270,700, which is slightly higher than that of associate justices, which is $258,900.[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.

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.[6][7] This rule was established to preclude the possibility of a vice president presiding over their own trial.


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.[8][9]

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.[8] 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.[10] 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.[11]

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,[9] as this enables him to influence the historical record.[8] 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.[9] 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.[9] 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.[12]

Presidential oath[]

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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] The chief justice also:

  • Serves as the head of the federal judiciary.
  • Serves as the head of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the chief administrative body of the United States federal courts. The Judicial Conference is empowered by the Rules Enabling Act to propose rules, which are then promulgated by the Supreme Court (subject to disapproval by Congress under the Congressional Review Act), to ensure the smooth operation of the federal courts. Major portions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Federal Rules of Evidence have been adopted by most state legislatures and are considered canonical by American law schools.
  • Appoints sitting federal judges to the membership of the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), a "secret court" which oversees requests for surveillance warrants by federal police agencies (primarily the F.B.I.) against suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the United States. (see 50 U.S.C. § 1803).
  • Appoints sitting federal judges to the membership of the United States Alien Terrorist Removal Court (USATRC), a special court constituted to determine whether aliens should be deported from the United States on the grounds that they are terrorists.[18]
  • Appoints the members of the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, a special tribunal of seven sitting federal judges responsible for selecting the venue for coordinated pretrial proceedings in situations where multiple related federal actions have been filed in different judicial districts.
  • Serves ex officio as a member of the Board of Regents, and by custom as the Chancellor, of the Smithsonian Institution.
  • Supervises the acquisition of books for the Law Library of the Library of Congress.[19]

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.[20] 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 Justice Date confirmed
Tenure[lower-alpha 1] Appointed by Prior position[lower-alpha 2]
1 CJ Jay.tif John Jay
September 26, 1789
01789-10-19October 19, 1789

June 29, 1795
George Washington Acting
United States Secretary of State
2 John Rutledge.jpg John Rutledge
<span class="date" style="white-space: nowrap;>December 15, 1795
(10–14)[lower-alpha 3]
01795-08-12August 12, 1795[lower-alpha 4]

December 28, 1795
(resigned, nomination having been rejected)
Chief Justice of the
South Carolina Court of
Common Pleas and Sessions
Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court

3 CJ Ellsworth.tif Oliver Ellsworth
March 4, 1796
01796-03-08March 8, 1796

December 15, 1800
United States Senator
from Connecticut
4 CJ Marshall copy.png John Marshall
January 27, 1801
01801-02-04February 4, 1801

July 6, 1835
John Adams 4th
United States Secretary of State
5 CJ Taney.tif Roger B. Taney
March 15, 1836
01836-03-28March 28, 1836

October 12, 1864
Andrew Jackson 12th
United States Secretary
of the Treasury

6 CJ Chase.tif Salmon P. Chase
December 6, 1864
01864-12-15December 15, 1864

May 7, 1873
Abraham Lincoln 25th
United States Secretary
of the Treasury

7 CJ Waite.tif Morrison Waite
January 21, 1874
01874-03-04March 4, 1874

March 23, 1888
Ulysses S. Grant Ohio State Senator
Presiding officer,
Ohio constitutional convention
8 CJ Fuller.tif Melville Fuller
July 20, 1888
01888-10-08October 8, 1888

July 4, 1910
Grover Cleveland President,
Illinois State Bar Association
Illinois State Representative
9 CJ White.tif Edward Douglass White
December 12, 1910[lower-alpha 5]
01910-12-19December 19, 1910

May 19, 1921
William Howard Taft Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court

10 CJ Taft.tif William Howard Taft
June 30, 1921
01921-07-11July 11, 1921

February 3, 1930
Warren G. Harding 27th
President of the United States
11 CJ Hughes.tif Charles Evans Hughes
February 13, 1930
01930-02-24February 24, 1930

June 30, 1941
Herbert Hoover 44th
United States Secretary of State
Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court

12 CJ Stone.tif Harlan F. Stone
June 27, 1941[lower-alpha 5]
01941-07-03July 3, 1941

April 22, 1946
Franklin D. Roosevelt Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court

13 CJ Vinson.tif Fred M. Vinson
June 20, 1946
01946-06-24June 24, 1946

September 8, 1953
Harry S. Truman 53rd
United States Secretary
of the Treasury

14 CJ Warren.tif Earl Warren
March 1, 1954
01953-10-05October 5, 1953[lower-alpha 4]

June 23, 1969
Dwight D. Eisenhower 30th
Governor of California
15 CJ Burger.tif Warren E. Burger
June 9, 1969
01969-06-23June 23, 1969

September 26, 1986
Richard Nixon Judge of the
United States Court of Appeals
for the District of Columbia Circuit

16 CJ Rehnquist.tif William Rehnquist
September 17, 1986[lower-alpha 5]
01986-09-26September 26, 1986

September 3, 2005
Ronald Reagan Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court

17 CJ Roberts.tif John Roberts
(born 1955)
September 29, 2005
02005-09-29September 29, 2005

George W. Bush Judge of the
United States Court of Appeals
for the District of Columbia Circuit



  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. ^ a b 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. ^ a b c 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.


  1. ^ Rutkus, Denis Steven (2007) (in en). The Chief Justice of the United States. Nova Publishers. ISBN 9781600212253. 
  2. ^ a b Biskupic, Joan (March 26, 2019) (in en). The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts. Basic Books. ISBN 9780465093281. 
  3. ^ "Administrative Agencies: Office of the Chief Justice, 1789–present". Washington, D.C.: Federal Judicial Center. Retrieved April 10, 2017. 
  4. ^ a b McMillion, Barry J.; Rutkus, Denis Steven (July 6, 2018). "Supreme Court Nominations, 1789 to 2017: Actions by the Senate, the Judiciary Committee, and the President". Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service. Retrieved August 7, 2018. 
  5. ^ "Judicial Compensation". Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Retrieved July 9, 2020. 
  6. ^
  8. ^ a b c "Judiciary". Ithaca, New York: Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School. Retrieved May 23, 2017. 
  9. ^ a b c d (June 2006) "The decisional significance of the Chief Justice". University of Pennsylvania Law Review 154 (6): 1665–1707. DOI:10.2307/40041349. 
  10. ^ O'Brien, David M. (2008). Storm Center: The Supreme Court in American Politics (8th ed.). New York: W. W. Norton. p. 267. ISBN 978-0-393-93218-8. 
  11. ^ O'Brien, David M. (2008). Storm Center: The Supreme Court in American Politics (8th ed.). New York: W. W. Norton. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-393-93218-8. 
  12. ^ (June 2005) "Passing and Strategic Voting on the U.S. Supreme Court". Law & Society Review 39 (2): 349–377. DOI:10.1111/j.0023-9216.2005.00085.x. 
  13. ^ "Presidential Inaugurations: Presidential Oaths of Office". Retrieved June 21, 2015. 
  14. ^ "Excerpt from Coolidge's autobiography". Retrieved May 15, 2010. 
  15. ^ "Prologue: Selected Articles". Retrieved May 15, 2010. 
  16. ^ "Presidential Swearing-In Ceremony, Part 5 of 6". Archived from the original on February 3, 2011. Retrieved August 17, 2011. 
  17. ^ O'Brien, David M. (2008). Storm Center: The Supreme Court in American Politics (8th ed.). New York: W. W. Norton. p. 153. ISBN 978-0-393-93218-8. 
  18. ^ "Alien Terrorist Removal Court, 1996-present". Federal Judicial Center. Retrieved August 16, 2019. 
  19. ^ "Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress". Library of Congress. March 6, 2006. Retrieved January 14, 2008. 
  20. ^ Pettys, Todd E. (2006). "Choosing a Chief Justice: Presidential Prerogative or a Job for the Court?". Journal of Law & Politics 22 (3): 231–281. 
  21. ^ "U.S. Senate: Supreme Court Nominations: 1789–Present". 
  22. ^ "Justices 1789 to Present". 

Further reading[]

External links[]

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