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Chief Justice of the United States

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Chief Justice of the United States
Seal of the Supreme Court
John Roberts
since September 29, 2005
Supreme Court of the United States
StyleMr. Chief Justice
Your Honor
(within court)
The Honorable
StatusChief justice
Member ofFederal judiciary
Judicial Conference
Administrative Office of the Courts
SeatSupreme Court Building, Washington, D.C.
AppointerThe President
with Senate advice and consent
Term lengthLife tenure
Constituting instrumentConstitution of the United States
FormationMarch 4, 1789
(235 years ago)
First holderJohn Jay
Salary$312,200 USD

The chief justice of the United States is the chief judge of the Supreme Court of the United States and is the highest-ranking officer of the U.S. federal judiciary. Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the U.S. 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 "Judges of the supreme Court", who serve until they die, resign, retire, or are impeached and convicted. The existence of a chief justice is only explicit in Article I, Section 3, Clause 6 which states that the chief justice shall preside over the impeachment trial of the president; this has occurred three times, for Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and for Donald Trump’s first impeachment.

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; however, when deciding a case, the chief justice's vote counts no more than that of any other justice.

While nowhere mandated, the presidential oath of office is by tradition typically administered by the chief justice. 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 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 justices prior to becoming chief justice. One chief Justice – William Howard Taft – had previously served as President of the United States.

Origin, title and appointment[edit]

The United States Constitution does not explicitly establish an office of the 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.[1] The first person whose Supreme Court commission contained the modified title was Melville Fuller in 1888.[2] The associate justice 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, a justice's tenure ends only when the justice dies, retires, resigns, or is removed from office through the impeachment process. Since 1789, 15 presidents have made a total of 22 official nominations to the position.[3]

The salary of the chief justice is set by Congress; as of 2024, the annual salary is $312,200, which is slightly higher than that of associate justices, which is $298,500.[4] 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 their 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.[3]

Powers and duties[edit]

Chief Justices of the United States (Harper's Weekly, December 24, 1864)

Along with their general responsibilities as a member of the Supreme Court, the chief justice has several unique duties to fulfill.

Impeachment trials[edit]

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; Roberts declined to preside over Trump's second trial in 2021, which took place after the end of Trump's presidency. Senate president pro-tempore Patrick Leahy presided).[5] All three presidents were acquitted in the Senate. Although 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 they have only a single vote of nine on the decision whether to grant or deny certiorari.[8][9]

Despite the chief justice's elevated stature, their vote carries the same legal weight as the vote of each associate justice. Additionally, they have 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, they always assign 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 their most influential power,[9] as this enables them to influence the historical record.[8] They may assign this task to the individual justice best able to hold together a fragile coalition, to an ideologically amenable colleague, or to themselves. Opinion authors can have a large 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 the associate justices well 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.

The chief justice chairs the conferences where cases are discussed and tentatively voted on by the justices. They normally speak first and so have influence in framing the discussion. Although the chief justice votes first—the court votes in order of seniority—they 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[edit]

The chief justice has traditionally administered the presidential oath of office to new U.S. presidents. This is merely custom, and is not a constitutional responsibility of the chief justice. The Constitution does not require that the presidential 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, to administer oaths and affirmations. The chief justice ordinarily administers the oath of office to newly appointed and confirmed associate justices, whereas the seniormost associate justice will normally swear in a new chief justice.

If the chief justice is ill or incapacitated, the oath is usually administered by the seniormost member of the Supreme Court. Eight times, someone other than the chief justice of the United States administered the oath of office to the president.[13]

Other duties[edit]

Since the tenure of William Howard Taft, the office of chief justice has moved beyond just first among equals.[17] The chief justice also:

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. John Jay served as a diplomat to negotiate the Jay Treaty, Robert H. Jackson was appointed by President Truman to be the U.S. prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials of leading Nazis, and Earl Warren chaired the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy.

Disability or vacancy[edit]

Under 28 U.S.C. § 3, when the chief justice is unable to discharge their 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, Clarence Thomas is the most senior associate justice.

List of chief justices[edit]

Since the Supreme Court was established in 1789, the following 17 men have served as Chief Justice:[21][22]

Chief Justice Date confirmed
Tenure[a] Tenure length Appointed by Prior position[b]
1 John Jay
September 26, 1789
October 19, 1789

June 29, 1795
5 years, 253 days George Washington Acting
United States Secretary of State
2 John Rutledge
December 15, 1795
August 12, 1795[d]

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

3 Oliver Ellsworth
March 4, 1796
March 8, 1796

December 15, 1800
4 years, 282 days United States Senator
from Connecticut
4 John Marshall
January 27, 1801
February 4, 1801

July 6, 1835
34 years, 152 days John Adams 4th
United States Secretary of State
5 Roger B. Taney
March 15, 1836
March 28, 1836

October 12, 1864
28 years, 198 days Andrew Jackson 12th
United States Secretary
of the Treasury

6 Salmon P. Chase
December 6, 1864
December 15, 1864

May 7, 1873
8 years, 143 days Abraham Lincoln 25th
United States Secretary
of the Treasury

7 Morrison Waite
January 21, 1874
March 4, 1874

March 23, 1888
14 years, 19 days Ulysses S. Grant Ohio State Senator
Presiding officer,
Ohio constitutional convention
8 Melville Fuller
July 20, 1888
October 8, 1888

July 4, 1910
21 years, 269 days Grover Cleveland President,
Illinois State Bar Association
Illinois State Representative
9 Edward Douglass White
December 12, 1910[e]
December 19, 1910

May 19, 1921
10 years, 151 days William Howard Taft Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court

10 William Howard Taft
June 30, 1921
July 11, 1921

February 3, 1930
8 years, 207 days Warren G. Harding 27th
President of the United States
11 Charles Evans Hughes
February 13, 1930
February 24, 1930

June 30, 1941
11 years, 126 days Herbert Hoover 44th
United States Secretary of State
Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court

12 Harlan F. Stone
June 27, 1941[e]
July 3, 1941

April 22, 1946
4 years, 293 days Franklin D. Roosevelt Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court

13 Fred M. Vinson
June 20, 1946
June 24, 1946

September 8, 1953
7 years, 76 days Harry S. Truman 53rd
United States Secretary
of the Treasury

14 Earl Warren
March 1, 1954
October 5, 1953[d]

June 23, 1969
15 years, 261 days Dwight D. Eisenhower 30th
Governor of California
15 Warren E. Burger
June 9, 1969
June 23, 1969

September 26, 1986
17 years, 95 days Richard Nixon Judge of the
United States Court of Appeals
for the District of Columbia Circuit

16 William Rehnquist
September 17, 1986[e]
September 26, 1986

September 3, 2005
18 years, 342 days Ronald Reagan Associate Justice
of the Supreme Court

17 John Roberts
(born 1955)
September 29, 2005
September 29, 2005

18 years, 264 days 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 that person 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. ^ Biskupic, Joan (March 26, 2019). The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts. Basic Books. ISBN 9780465093281. Archived from the original on February 4, 2021. Retrieved October 15, 2020.
  2. ^ "Administrative Agencies: Office of the Chief Justice, 1789–present". Washington, D.C.: Federal Judicial Center. Archived from the original on December 31, 2017. Retrieved April 10, 2017.
  3. ^ 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" (PDF). fas.org (Federation of American Scientists). Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service. Archived (PDF) from the original on August 9, 2019. Retrieved August 7, 2018.
  4. ^ "Judicial Compensation". United States Courts. Retrieved January 18, 2022.
  5. ^ Davis, Susan; Totenberg, Nina (January 25, 2021). "Sen. Patrick Leahy To Preside Over Trump's Senate Impeachment Trial". NPR. Retrieved February 15, 2022.
  6. ^ "U.S. Senate: Impeachment". Archived from the original on January 13, 2020. Retrieved January 15, 2020.
  7. ^ Sisco, Gary (January 13, 1999). "Impeachment of President William Jefferson Clinton - Constitutional Provisions; Rules of Procedure and Practice in the Senate When Sitting on Impeachment Trials; Articles of Impeachment Against President William Jefferson Clinton; President Clinton's Answer; and Replication of the House of Representatives" (PDF). GovInfo. Archived (PDF) from the original on December 19, 2019. Retrieved February 10, 2020.
  8. ^ a b c "Judiciary". Ithaca, New York: Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School. Archived from the original on July 9, 2018. Retrieved May 23, 2017.
  9. ^ a b c d Cross, Frank B.; Lindquist, Stefanie (June 2006). "The decisional significance of the Chief Justice" (PDF). University of Pennsylvania Law Review. 154 (6). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Law School: 1665–1707. doi:10.2307/40041349. JSTOR 40041349. Archived (PDF) from the original on April 12, 2019. Retrieved May 23, 2017.
  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. ^ Johnson, Timothy R.; Spriggs II, James F.; Wahlbeck, Paul J. (June 2005). "Passing and Strategic Voting on the U.S. Supreme Court". Law & Society Review. 39 (2). Law and Society Association, through Wiley: 349–377. CiteSeerX doi:10.1111/j.0023-9216.2005.00085.x.
  13. ^ "Presidential Inaugurations: Presidential Oaths of Office". Memory.loc.gov. Archived from the original on January 21, 2009. Retrieved June 21, 2015.
  14. ^ "Excerpt from Coolidge's autobiography". Historicvermont.org. Archived from the original on December 31, 2017. Retrieved May 15, 2010.
  15. ^ "Prologue: Selected Articles". Archives.gov. Archived from the original on April 1, 2011. Retrieved May 15, 2010.
  16. ^ "Presidential Swearing-In Ceremony, Part 5 of 6". Inaugural.senate.gov. 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. Archived from the original on October 8, 2019. Retrieved August 16, 2019.
  19. ^ "Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress". Library of Congress. March 6, 2006. Archived from the original on March 12, 2011. 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). The University of Iowa College of Law: 231–281. SSRN 958829. Archived from the original on September 25, 2018. Retrieved April 10, 2017.
  21. ^ "U.S. Senate: Supreme Court Nominations: 1789–Present". www.senate.gov. Archived from the original on December 9, 2020. Retrieved February 17, 2016.
  22. ^ "Justices 1789 to Present". www.supremecourt.gov. Archived from the original on April 15, 2010. Retrieved January 11, 2018.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]