Chief Justice Post Carries Clout; Duties Extend beyond Bench

Article excerpt


If confirmed as chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr.'s most important duty will be assigning cases to the eight associate Supreme Court justices, but he'll also take over vast extracurricular duties and powers as the nation's top judge.

There is a reason his official title will be "chief justice of the United States" rather than just chief justice of the Supreme Court, said Richard Carelli, a spokesman for the administrative arm of the federal judiciary.

Perhaps most critically, the chief justice is by statute the head of the Judicial Conference - essentially the policy-making wing of the federal court system - and has exclusive appointment power of judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The highly secretive court - established in 1978 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) - presides over classified applications by federal law enforcement authorities seeking permission to conduct electronic surveillance anywhere within the United States.

Michael A. Vatis, a New York appellate lawyer who clerked for now-deceased Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she was a lower-court judge, noted the level of power the chief justice has over the FISA court, which has drawn criticism from civil liberties advocates in recent years.

"Especially given how much FISA is used nowadays in the wake of September 11 and given the importance of the FISA court's interpretation of the rules as amended by the [2001] Patriot Act ... he can essentially stack that court with the sorts of judges he wants," Mr. Vatis said.

But he and other legal specialists generally agree that the most prominent extracurricular activity of a chief justice is his position as head of the Judicial Conference. "He really is the face of the federal judiciary," said Carl W. Tobias of the University of Richmond School of Law. …