Chief Justice of the United States
The Chief Justice of the United States serves at the apex of the structure for federal court governance established by Congress and exercises this responsibility in addition to the judicial and administrative duties that fall to the chief judicial officer of the Supreme Court. By statute, the Chief Justice presides over the Judicial Conference (28 U.S.C. § 331), selects the director and deputy director of the Administrative Office (28 U.S.C. § 601), chairs the Board of the Federal Judicial Center (28 U.S.C. § 621(a)(1)), designates judges to serve on the Judicial Panel for Multidistrict Litigation (28 U.S.C. § 1407 (d)) and on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (50 U.S.C. § 1803 (a)), and assigns district and circuit judges to serve temporarily in circuits other than their own (28 U.S.C. §§ 291–292). These statutory duties give rise to other responsibilities: The Chief Justice serves as the federal judiciary’s ultimate advocate and spokesperson with respect to legislation affecting administration of the federal courts—a duty that has become routine since William Howard Taft served as Chief Justice (1921–1930). The Chief Justice also appoints the some 200 members of the extensive committee system of the Judicial Conference.
The Chief Justice’s responsibilities have grown steadily along with the expansion of the federal judicial bureaucracy. In 1972 Congress authorized each Chief Justice of the United States to appoint an administrative assistant to help with matters of court governance and the other nonjudicial functions of the office. In 2008, Congress changed the title of the position from administrative assistant to Counselor.
The Constitution anticipated that there would be a “chief justice” when Article I Section 3 designated this person to preside during presidential impeachment trials in the Senate, but the office of Chief Justice was not formally established until the Judiciary Act of 1789 authorized the Supreme Court to have a “chief justice and five associate justices.” Statutes referred to the “Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States” until 1866, when the appropriations act used the term “Chief Justice of the United States” (14 Stat. 205). Although salary acts as late as 1911 still referred to the “Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,” the commission received by every Chief Justice since 1888 has contained the more expansive title.
Congress has also assigned the Chief Justice an important duty that is unrelated to the judicial function or to federal court governance: to serve on the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. By custom, the Chief Justice is elected chancellor of the Smithsonian Board of Regents.
Fish, Peter G., “The Office of Chief Justice of the United States: Into the Federal Judiciary’s Bicentennial Decade,” in The Office of Chief Justice, (The White Burkett Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, 1984), 1-154.
Wheeler, Russell R., and Gordon Bermant, Federal Court Governance: Why Congress Should—and Why Congress Should Not—Create a Full-Time Executive Judge, Abolish the Judicial Conference, and Remove Circuit Judges from District Court Governance (Federal Judicial Center, 1994).
Judicial Administration and Organization