Now that President Bush has nominated John Roberts to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the stakes have been raised considerably. As this article points out, the Chief Justice has a unique and important role on the Supreme Court, on the federal judiciary, and in shaping the law in American society.
First, the Chief Justice defines and symbolizes the Supreme Court. The Court is often referred to by the name of the Chief Justice; for instance, for the last 17 years we have had the Rehnquist Court. This represents the fact that the Chief Justice leads and shapes the character of the Supreme Court that he presides over.
Apart from this important leadership role, the Chief Justice has broad power to influence the Court’s opinions. When the Justices meet to discuss cases and to vote on them, the Chief Justice leads the discussion. The Chief is also the first to circulate a list of the cases he (or she, although we have never had a female Chief Justice) thinks the Court should agree to hear in the next term. The Chief Justice can also influence the Court by assigning opinions among the Justices.
These procedural powers allow the Chief to shape the Court’s agenda, and in some cases to substantially affect how an opinion is written. For instance, in the 2003 case Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion allowing a state employee to sue a state for damages for violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act. This position was different from the view Chief Justice Rehnquist had taken in a series of other cases, so it was speculated that he decided to join a majority that already contained five Justices so that he could assign the opinion – to himself. In this way, he could control the scope of the opinion.
The Chief Justice also has important authorities apart from his role as the head of the Supreme Court. He or she is essentially the head of the third branch of our government. The Chief Justice names members of various special courts, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, which decides government requests for warrants for secret surveillance, searches and wiretaps. The Chief is also the head of the Judicial Conference of the United States. The Judicial Conference takes positions on legislation; for instance, under Chief Justice Rehnquist it opposed part of a bill that would have allowed victims of gender-motivated violence to sue their attackers in federal court in the early 1990s.
As you might remember from the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, the Chief Justice also presides over Presidential impeachment proceedings in Congress. Historically, Chief Justices have also been asked to sit on special commissions—for instance, President Johnson appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren to chair the presidential commission on President Kennedy’s assassination.
All of these important powers and responsibilities mean that the selection of a Chief Justice is even more important than the selection of any other Justice on the Supreme Court. As a result, there must be an even higher level of scrutiny of the Roberts nomination now that it is for Chief Justice. Not surprisingly—since we had already concluded that Roberts should not be confirmed as an Associate Justice based on the available record, we do not believe he should be the nation’s next Chief Justice.