Dear Straight Dope:
I'm puzzled by the American court system. You've got fifty states, and each one has a supreme court and lower courts. Then there's the federal system alongside — or on top of — that, and it's got more of the same. Who, if anyone, is your country's top judge?
SDStaff Elendil's Heir replies:
Sometimes we ask ourselves the same question. Most presidential inaugurations go off without a hitch, but Chief Justice John Roberts, head of the U.S. Supreme Court, helped Barack Obama screw up his presidential oath badly enough on January 20, 2009 that they had to have a quick do-over at the White House the next day. Who is this guy? And where does he fit in with the rest of America’s judges?
As you note, the United States, as a federal republic, has judges at every level of government: national, state and local. But the U.S. Supreme Court is the pinnacle of the American judiciary, with the last word (when it chooses to weigh in) on virtually every legal question presented to it except those purely of state law. In the State Department’s order of precedence, used to rank dignitaries for ceremonial purposes, the Chief Justice rates seventh, right after the Speaker of the House and just ahead of any former Presidents. He is our top judge.
Although Chief Justice Roberts has only one vote when deciding cases, as do his eight colleagues on the Supreme Court, he’s automatically the senior justice (even ahead of those who’ve been on the court far longer). He assigns the writing of decisions to whomever he wishes when he’s in the majority, and has additional responsibilities as well, including — customarily but not invariably — swearing in the President.
By heading the Judicial Conference of the U.S., the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the Federal Judicial Center, the Chief Justice exerts a supervisory role over the entire national judiciary. Under a 1922 law he can also assign, with their consent, Federal judges for temporary duty as needed around the country. Under more recent legislation, he selects judges for service on specialized panels such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And, since 1846, the Chief Justice has also served as Chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution, its nominal but largely honorary head.
Sometimes the Chief Justice is given still other assignments. John Jay and John Marshall both briefly served simultaneously as Chief Justice and Secretary of State. In 1794, at the request of President Washington, Jay led the diplomatic mission that negotiated the controversial treaty with the British that resolved much of the unfinished business of the American Revolution. In 1963-64, Earl Warren headed the commission bearing his name that investigated the assassination of President Kennedy.
Incidentally, although Roberts and his predecessors are sometimes described as “Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,” that title is incorrect. This is largely due to the efforts of the sixth Chief Justice, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio. Chase had been appointed “Chief Justice of the Supreme Court” by President Lincoln in 1864, but craved a grander title and styled himself “Chief Justice of the United States.” Congress went along shortly afterwards, and later Chief Justices have all borne the modified title, which emphasizes the Chief Justice’s role as the leader of the judiciary, a coequal branch of the federal government. The Chief Justice, it should be emphasized, isn’t the boss of the Supreme Court but rather is primus inter pares, first among equals. Nonetheless, his colleagues must content themselves with the less lofty distinction of being Associate Justices of the Supreme Court.
Power, prestige, a snazzy robe, a guaranteed front-row seat at inaugurations — not a bad gig, you’re thinking. Sure, but don’t let it go to your head. A survey in the Eighties indicated that more people recognized Judge Joseph Wapner of TV’s The People’s Court than William H. Rehnquist, Chief Justice at the time. I’d bet most Americans today couldn’t pick John Roberts out of a lineup, and perhaps that’s as it should be. Modesty is definitely a virtue in judges, and never more so than when you’re the big cheese.
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