Chief Justice

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Generally, a chief justice is the presiding judge of a supreme court in any country with a justice system based on English common law

In the United States, the chief justice is the chief judge of the Supreme Court (“the Court”) and is the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. judiciary.  Both the Executive and Legislative branches determine the Supreme Court composition: as with the associate justices, the chief justice is appointed by the President of the United States and then confirmed by Senate by a simple majority.  There is no requirement that the chief justice serve as an associate justice before becoming chief justice.  The Supreme Court is often colloquially referred to by the name of the then-current presiding chief justice (e.g., “The Roberts Court.”). 

The Constitution mentions the chief justice not in Article III, which authorizes a federal court system and establishes the Supreme Court, but in Article I—which clarifies that the chief justice shall preside over Senate during presidential impeachment trials.  Beyond this responsibility, the chief justice’s authorities have been established by statute or custom.  In particular, the chief justice presides over the Court’s public and private sessions, where the Court selects which cases to review.  The chief justice also has the authority to decide which of the Court’s justices will write the Court’s majority opinion—but if and only if the chief justice has voted with the majority.  However, if the chief justice has not voted with the majority, then the authority shifts to the most senior justice who voted with the majority.

The chief justice’s responsibilities extend beyond those of the Supreme Court.  He/she also presides over the entire federal court system, including over 2,000 federal judges and 30,000 staff members.  Additionally, the chief justice is responsible for selecting the members of certain policy-making judicial committees and of specialized courts, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court.  And, just as with the associate justices, the chief justice holds office as long as he/she chooses and can only be removed via impeachment.

[Last updated in May of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]