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Monday, January 12, 2015

More on rotating Chief Justices

At CoOp last week, Gerard Magliocca asked whether it would be constitutional to shift away from the current system of a separately appointed Chief Justice in favor of a system of rotating Chiefs, either based on seniority (as on the Federal Districts and Circuits) or based on selection by thesitting Justices (as happens on some state supreme courts). I have used this question in Fed Courts, in the last days of the class when we discuss the theoretical stuff on congressional control over the courts. Edward Swaine (GW) considered the question in a 2006 piece in Penn Law Review, concluding that the present scheme of appointing/confirming one person to the position of Chief Justice of the United States was not constitutionally required and that Congress could change the manner of selecting a Chief Justice (the Constitution requires that there be a Chief Justice). I agree with Swaine on the constitutional point.

But is it a good idea? Gerard argues that a rotating system distributes the powers to preside and to assign opinions, which otherwise remain exclusively with the Chief or with the senior-most Associate Justice in the majority, possibly for quite awhile. And if the Chief and the senior-most Associate often disagree, the assignment power remains firmly in two sets of hands for a significant number of cases.* How might deliberations and decisionmaking change if there were more variance over time in the assignment power? How might oral arguments change if the presiding Justice changed more often?

(*) This would make an interesting empirical question, actually. In the past 40 years, we have had two such lengthy periods--1975-90 (Burger/Rehnquist as Chief, Brennan as seniormost Associate) and 1994-2005 2010 (Rehnquist/Roberts as Chief, Stevens as seniormost Associate). [Ed: I cut Stevens short, forgetting that he spent five additional years as senior associate after Rehnquist's death, with Roberts, a Justice with whom he often disagreed, as Chief.  This 2011 article explores how and how often Stevens exercised the assignment power as senior associate justice]

The counter-argument attaches to the idea that the Chief carries a unique connection, allegiance, and obligation to the "Supreme Court as an institution." This affects how the Chief performs administrative functions as the head of the entire federal judiciary--for example, by chastising Congress for insufficient funding and failure to fill vacancies, regardless of which party is in control. And it may carry into decisionmaking. Chiefs have cast surprising votes in cases that are atttributed, rightly or wrongly, to that loyalty and to an interest in protecting the Court's institutional legitimacy, even at the expense of their own jurisprudential preferences--people often point (again, rightly or wrongly) to Roberts upholding the individual mandate in NFIB or Rehnquist affirming the constitutional basis of Miranda in Dickerson. The concern is that someone serving only 6-8 years as Chief (the typical term for a lower-court Chief Judge) as part of longer service as a Justice will not feel that same institutional obligation, potentially at some cost to the Court as a body. Moreover, there is a sense that someone must "grow" into the Chief Justiceship and learn to perform well the various administrative and institutional functions, which takes more time than a rotating term would allow; the longer, permanent chiefdom is necessary to allow for that leaning curve.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 12, 2015 at 09:31 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink


The "loyal opposition" -- if I may use that term -- of Brennan and Stevens is interesting. Black/Douglas was the guys before Brennan, which changed this dynamic some during the Warren years.

As to "institutional" issue, I think it could be pretty small, since justices overall tend to be concerned about the institution & when in the role of Chief Justice would act accordingly. A President is only in office for eight years at most (except special cases) and the responsibility of the position is respected. The learn on the job thing is possible.

Overall, I think it could be helpful if the job was rotated, term limits here a decent idea. It might be useful to see how rotations work in lower courts and compare it to the practice in the USSC.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 12, 2015 10:20:48 AM

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