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 not only presides over the Supreme Court.

The other eight members of the Supreme Court are called "Associate Justices of the Supreme Court."

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 and appoints the director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

As primary duties, the Chief Justice presides over oral arguments before the Supreme Court and sets the agenda of for the court’s meetings. When he or she agrees with the majority, the Chief Justice decides who writes the court's opinion.

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, the actual title of Chief Justice was created in the Judiciary Act of 1789.

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.

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

  • The Chief Justice enters the courtroom first and casts the first vote when the justices deliberate. 
  • The Chief Justice's vote carries the same weight as those of eight associate justices.If the chief justice votes with the majority in a case decided by the Supreme Court, he or she may choose to write the Court's opinion or to assign the task to one of the associate justices.
  • The chief justice presides over closed-door conferences of the court in which votes are cast on pending appeals and cases heard in oral argument.
  • The Chief Justice sits as the judge in impeachments of the President of the United States. Only two chief justices have ever served this role: Chief Justices, Salmon P. Chase presided over the Senate trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868, and the late William H. Rehnquist presided over the trial of President William Clinton in 1999.
  • The Chief Justice presides over the impeachment trial of the Vice President of the United States. if the Vice President is serving as Acting President (a Senate rule, not provided for by the U.S. Constitution).

  • The Chief Justice swears in the President of the United States at inaugurations. This is a purely traditional role. According to law, any federal or state judge, even a notary-public, is empowered to administer oaths of office.
  • The Chief Justice serves as Chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution and sits on the boards of the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum.
  • The Chief Justice writes an annual report to Congress about the state of the federal court system.
  • The Chief Justice 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.
  • The Chief Justice issues a year-end report on the federal judiciary that sets priorities and highlights accomplishments and problems in federal courts.

  • The Chief Justice appoints other federal judges to serve on various administrative and judicial panels.

The Chief Justice is paid more than the associate justices. In 2017, the yearly salary of the chief justice was set at $263,300 while the salary of the associate justices was set at $251,800.