INFORMATION REGARDING THE CHIEF JUSTICE
AND THE U.S. SUPREME COURT IN GENERAL
Duties of the Chief Justice
1. Presides over Presidential impeachment trials in the Senate.
This is a Constitutionally mandated role for the Chief
Justice, outlined in Section 3 Article 1.
2. There was some discussion in the Constitutional Convention
to have the Chief Justice become a member of the Cabinet, to
Chair the Cabinet in the absence of the President,, and to
succeed an impeached President, but these ideas were all
defeated. Early on, the Chief Justice was the official
inspector of the mints and had a role in monitoring the
national debt. By 1834, however, the Secretary of the
Treasury assumed these duties.
3. Swear in the President and other officials as requested, The
Chief Justice does not have to swear in the President
however. In emergency situations, others can and have sworn
a. Johnson, sworn in by Sarah T. Hughes, U.S. Judge,
b. Coolidge, sworn in by his son John C. Coolidge, a
Justice of the Peace;
c. Theodore Roosevelt, sworn in by John R. Hazel, U.S.
Judge, New York; and
d. Washington, Tyler, Fillmore and Arthur also sworn in by
others, due to death of the President in every case,
except Washington; there was no obviously no Chief
Justice to swear him in after his first election; at
his re-election inaugural, John Jay (the first Chief
Justice) was in England as our Ambassador, so William
Cushing, an Associate Judge on the Supreme Court did
4. Swear in attorneys to practice before the Supreme Court, As
of 1998, there were some 227,500 persons licensed to practice
law before the Supreme Court.
5. Chairman of the Board, Smithsonian Institute.
6. Chairman of the Board, National Art Gallery.
7. Heads Presidential Commissions as called by the President
(ie. the Warren Commission that looked into the Kennedy
8. Ceremonial role, leads the "brethren" into the House to
hear the State of the Union speech; leads the "brethren"
into the capital for formal funeral processions, greets
9. Chief of Police, over the 100 plus Supreme Court Police
10. Head Librarian, in charge of the Supreme Court Library.
ll. Curator, Supreme Court Museum.
12. Personnel Manager, oversees the hiring and firing of all
Supreme Court staff.
13. Office Manager, oversees the activities of his staff
including the secretaries as well as the law clerks.
14. Numerous executive details related to general court
a. Sets the date and time that the Court will meet; Burger
wanted to start at 10:00 a.m., but traditional Court
meet at noon, so after some time, he was able to get it
b. Establishes proper clothing standards;
c. Establishes the maximum length of case briefs (75
d. Length of meetings;
e. Amount of time to be given to each subject at the
f. Time limits on oral arguments; 2 hours at present;
g. Furnishings,in the offices;
h. Office assignments; and
i. General maintenance of the Supreme Court building
(paint, flowers, new roof, parking areas, lighting,
improved cafeteria services, new seats in court,
seating arrangements, plumbing, electrical, etc).
15. Occasionally even given multiple assignments; John Jay was
Secretary of State and later Ambassador to England while
serving as Chief Justice. John Marshall was Secretary of
State for one month while Chief Justice. Interestingly, it
was he who failed to get all of the commissions delivered,
thus setting the stage for Marbury v. Madison.
16. There are even more duties and responsibilities that are too
numerous to mention - Bar Association role, Chancellor of
Judges College, informal legal advisor to the President and
the Attorney General, official spokesman for the Court,
public relations role, heads up various committees,
diplomatic mission (settle disputes between two nations ie.
Costa Rica and Panama in 1914; Venezuela and Guiana in
1927), represent the U.S. abroad as requested by the
In sum, we ask our Chief Justice to be a jurist, a statesman, a
scholar and a political spokesperson. This is obviously a very
large role for any person to fill. Actually, the office of Chief
Justice was patterned somewhat after the English Lord Chancellor
position, an office that carried even greater responsibilities.
Lord Chancellor responsibilities:
l. Preside over the House of Lords, is actually the Speaker of
the House of Lords.
2. Head of the Judicial Committee, roughly our Department of
Justice (this person is therefore a member of the cabinet).
3. Presiding member of the High Court and a member of the Court
4. Selects judges.
Consider the role of the Lord Chancellor again. This person has
a judicial branch role, an executive branch role, and a
legislative branch role. This is/was an incredibly powerful
Chief Justice John Marshall, who served for some 34 years, was
clearly in favor of enhancing judicial powers, but did not
believe it was appropriate to concentrate so much power in the
hands of one person. While there were some who proposed a Lord
Chancellor-type model for the Chief Justice, Marshall envisioned
a different role. His long term in office effectively destroyed
any chance that the Chief Justice would ever be a "Lord
Do remember the Marshall was not the first Chief Justice. The
first two Chief Justices were John Jay and Oliver Ellsworth.
They were really nothing but caretakers. John Marshall, who
served from 1801 to 1835, is generally viewed as being the first
"real" Chief Justice. He had been a very successful attorney in
Richmond, Virginia. A very personable and capable individual, he
served as the Secretary of State under President John Adams. He
was appointed Chief Justice shortly before Adams left the
Presidency in 1801. Adams had won the Presidency by only three
electorial votes in 1796 over Jefferson. As we have already
noted, Jefferson did not like Marshall's perspectives at ail.
Had Jefferson won the election in 1796, the Supreme Court today
would be a very different judicial tribunal. In fact, had
Jefferson won the election in 1796, this would be a very
different country today.
Marshall served as the Chief Justice during the administrations
of six Presidents (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams and
Jackson), and molded the Court and the position of Chief Justice
to his liking. Only William 0. Douglas, who never was the Chief
Justice, ever served any longer on the Supreme Court bench.
Douglas, who retired in 1975, served for 36 years. When length
of service comes up, Oliver Wendell Holmes name is often
mentioned. He was 90 when he finally retired from the bench in
1931, but he did not serve as long as Marshall or Douglas,
A couple of other thoughts:
l. The official title of the Chief Justice was originally, The
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the-United States. In
1865, Chief Justice Salmon Chase (the only Chief Justice to
preside over a Presidential impeachment trial) proposed the
name of Chief Justice of the Union. That idea was rejected.
In 1888, the title of Chief Justice of the United States was
adopted and that is the official title today.
2. William Rehnquist is the 16th person to serve as Chief
3. The English courts tend to deliver their opinions seriatim.
A case is argued, the judges consider the matter and then
report their findings independently of each other. In open
court, the judges speak in order of seniority, junior member
first to senior member, with the Chief Justice speaking
last. They are in as much suspense as the rest of those in
attendance to see how the vote will finally be, who will win
and what the new law will be. The key here is that the
judges rendered their decisions wholly independent of each
other. There was no conference discussion. Lord Chancellor
Mansfield tried to change that. He instituted a practice of
meeting in chambers, secluded from the public and hashing
out an agreement, compromising where necessary, and
assigning someone to write up "the opinion of the court".
As soon as Lord Mansfield departed, however, so did this
practice.But Marshall liked the idea, and incorporated it
from day one in his court. Of the 1127 cases handled by the
Marshall Court, only five utilized seriatim opinions and
there have been none since,This was a marked departure from
English jurisprudence. But Marshall saw a great value in a
a. stabilized the law, brings cohesion to the law by
establishing more or less clearly stated rulings -
stare decisis notion:
b. enhances court's visibility;
c. increased role of the court as a vital formulator of
public policy; and
d. increased courts power and the likelihood of the court
If 9 separate decisions and/or points of view were handed
down, then the law is unclear-and it is less likely to see
any compliance by affected parties. This is problem even
today - a 5/4 vote generally means very little as a policy
statement; Brown v, Board of Education was so powerful
because Chief Justice Warren was able to put together a 9/0
vote in that case. A 9/0 vote means we are firm and you had
better do as we say. You cannot simply wait for one of us
to die, as you can in a 5/4 decision. Furthermore, if the
Court is going to set itself above the executive and
legislative branches, then it better speak clearly and with
one voice. Jefferson, among others, disagreed with the
notion of abandoning seriatim, but since Marshall served so
long, it became the standard practice.