Roberts as Chief Justice: Not Just One Vote out of Nine
During his mournful contemplation in front of William Rehnquist's coffin at the Supreme Court on Sept. 6, John Roberts Jr. looked up and soberly scanned the majestic Great Hall in which he was standing.
It seemed to be sinking in for Roberts that he could soon be running the Court and the federal judiciary as chief justice, rather than starting as the most junior associate justice, whose main special duty would have been to open the door when someone interrupts the Court's private conferences with a knock.
In swiftly switching Roberts from the Sandra Day O'Connor seat to the chief justice opening created by Rehnquist's death, President George W. Bush may have left the impression that the jobs of associate justice and chief justice are fairly interchangeable. The hoary axiom that the chief justice has only one vote, just like the rest, also feeds that view.
But in reality, the job Roberts signed up for has sweeping, if usually unstated, powers and significance.
Inside the Court -- which will be known henceforth as "the Roberts Court" if he is confirmed -- he will have powers not only to assign opinion-writing but to disproportionately influence policy over issues ranging from the size of the docket to whether to allow broadcast coverage of Court proceedings.
Beyond the Court walls, Roberts will be the titular head of the entire judicial branch, with policy-setting roles and a budget in excess of $5 billion. He will chair the Judicial Conference, which sets policy for the federal judiciary, and will appoint judges to key committees of the conference. During his confirmation hearings, Roberts may face a whole line of questioning about administrative issues that he would not have been subjected to as a choice for associate justice.
"It's more than just being chief justice. He sits at the head of a Fortune 500 corporation, a very large and complex organization," says Harvey Rishikof, a professor at the National War College who served as one of Rehnquist's administrative assistants in the 1990s.
Roberts, himself a clerk for Rehnquist while he was an associate justice, is keenly aware of the differences between the associate and chief positions.
"It's a big change when you go from associate to chief justice," Roberts said in a 1997 talk at Georgetown University that was recently replayed on C-SPAN. As an associate justice, Roberts said, Rehnquist developed "a carefully considered view of the Constitution." As chief, he said, Rehnquist "now has to spend some time policing" his colleagues and the Court. "Institutionally, it's a very different role."law.com
Does it Matter Whether John Roberts Becomes an Associate Justice, or the Chief?
Why Both the President and Democratic Skeptics Are Wrong to Think it Does
By MICHAEL C. DORF
Monday, Sep. 12, 2005
Moving quickly in the wake of Chief Justice Rehnquist's death, President Bush announced that he was withdrawing the nomination of Judge John Roberts to the seat vacated by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and instead nominating Roberts as Chief Justice of the United States.
With the start of the Supreme Court Term just a few weeks away, Bush said that it was "in the interest of the Court and the country to have a Chief Justice on the bench on the first full day of the fall term."
Click here to find out more!
Democrats reacted swiftly and predictably. New York Senator Chuck Schumer's statement was typical of those who thought that switching Roberts to Chief Justice ought
to imply a higher level of scrutiny. Schumer was quoted as saying, "This nomination certainly raises the stakes in making sure that the American people and the Senate know Judge Roberts's views fully before he assumes perhaps the second most powerful position in the United States."
Yet both Bush and the Democrats are wrong: The Chief Justice wields scarcely any greater power than the other members of the Court. Contrary to Bush's contention, the Court could function perfectly well with an acting Chief Justice, and contrary to Schumer's contention, an Associate Justice merits no less scrutiny than a Chief Justice.findlaw