Duties of the Chief Justice of the United States

The chambers of the US Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court Prepares For New Term. Alex Wong / Getty Images

Often incorrectly called the "chief justice of the Supreme Court," the chief justice of the United States doesn't only preside over the Supreme Court, which includes eight other members called associate justices. As the nation’s highest-ranking judicial official, the chief justice speaks for the judicial branch of the federal government and serves as the chief administrative officer for the federal courts. In this capacity, the chief justice heads the Judicial Conference of the United States, the chief administrative body of the U.S. federal courts, and appoints the director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

The chief justice's vote carries the same weight as those of eight associate justices, though the role does require duties that the associate justices don't perform. As such, the chief justice is traditionally paid more than the associate justices.

History of the Chief Justice Role

The office of chief justice is not explicitly established in the U.S. Constitution. While Article I, Section 3, Clause 6 of the Constitution refers to a "chief justice" as presiding over Senate trials of presidential impeachment. Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution, which establishes the Supreme Court itself, refers to all members of the Court simply as “judges.” The distinct titles of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States were created by the Judiciary Act of 1789.

In 1866, Associate Justice Salmon P. Chase, who had been by to the Court by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864, convinced Congress to change the official title Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States to the current Chief Justice of the United States. Chase reasoned that the new title better acknowledged the position’s duties within the judicial branch not directly related to the Supreme Court’s deliberations. In 1888, Chief Justice of the United States Melville Fuller became the first person to actually hold the modern title. Since 1789, 15 different presidents have made a total of 22 official nominations to either the original or the modern chief justice position.

Since the Constitution mandates only that there must be a chief justice, the practice of appointment by the president with the consent of the Senate has been based solely on tradition. The Constitution does not specifically prohibit the use of other methods, as long as the chief justice is selected from among the other sitting justices.

The current (2018) annual salary of the Chief Justice of the United States as set by Congress, is $267,000, slightly higher than the $255,300 salary of the associate justices.

Like all federal judges, the chief justice is nominated by the president of the United States and must be confirmed by the Senate. The term-in-office of the chief justice is set by Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution, which states that all federal judges "shall hold their offices during good behavior," meaning that chief justices serve for life, unless they die, resign, or are removed from office through the impeachment process.

A Chief Justice's Main Duties

As primary duties, the chief justice presides over oral arguments before the Supreme Court and sets the agenda for the court's meetings. When voting with the majority in a case decided by the Supreme Court, the chief justice may choose to write the Court's opinion or to assign the task to one of the associate justices.

Presiding Over Impeachment Proceedings

The chief justice sits as the judge in impeachments of the president of the United States, including when the vice president of the United States is the acting president. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presided over the Senate trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868, and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist presided over the trial of President William Clinton in 1999. 

Other Duties of the Chief Justice

In day-to-day proceedings, the chief justice enters the courtroom first and casts the first vote when the justices deliberate, and also presides over closed-door conferences of the court in which votes are cast on pending appeals and cases heard in oral argument.

Outside the courtroom, the chief justice writes an annual report to Congress about the state of the federal court system and appoints other federal judges to serve on various administrative and judicial panels. The chief justice also serves as chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution and sits on the boards of the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum.

Chief Justice's Role on Inauguration Day

While it's thought the chief justice must swear in the ​president of the United States at inaugurations, this is a purely traditional role. According to law, any federal or state judge is empowered to administer oaths of office, and even a notary public can perform the duty, as was the case when Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as president in 1923.