What is a Chief Justice?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 February 2020
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Chief justice has two main meanings. Regarding courts in which there are multiple judges, the title is reserved for the judge who presides over the rest. In addition, a chief justice may head the judicial branch of a country’s government.

There are a number of countries that have a chief justice in their judicial system. Among these are Australia, Canada, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and the United States. Additionally, countries may have chief justices at the state or provincial level, as they are in some of the United States — some have a chief judge, instead — and some Canadian provinces and territories.

The Chief Justice of the United States, like all justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, is nominated to office by the president and confirmed to office by the Senate. That is, both the executive and legislative branch are involved in the decision. In Canada, on the other hand, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada is appointed by the Govern General, based on the advice of the current federal cabinet — there is no obligation to consult Parliament.


In the United States, the Chief Justice is not included in the presidential line of succession which lays out who takes may act as President or become President of the United States in any case when the elected or current president is unable to fulfill the duties of office. As the Chief Justice is the head of the judicial branch of the federal government, and the President is the head of the executive branch, the balance of powers is maintained by this exclusion. In Canada, on the other hand, the Chief Justice of Canada is second in command of the country. It is this person who takes up the duties of the Governor General of Canada, should the Governor General be unable to act.

Nonjudicial roles of a chief justice vary by country and may be set or ad hoc. In set duties, for example, in the United States, the Chief Justice administers the presidential oath of office at an inauguration as a matter of custom. Chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution is another role of the US chief justice, as is management of the Supreme Court Building. On the other hand, Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin of Canada’s symposium presentation in connection with the performance of the opera Louis Riel, the founder of Manitoba, which was given in connection with the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, was an example of a one-time, special occasion appearance by a chief justice.


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