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Now that Senate Judiciary Committee hearings have concluded for Judge John Roberts, senators must emphasize the chief justice’s myriad critical responsibilities. Senate members should scrutinize the chief’s broad spectrum of crucial assignments as they consider the nominee. The role most familiar to the public is presiding over the U.S. Supreme Court. Its critical feature is assigning specific justices opinion-writing duties in cases where the chief justice is in the majority. The chief justice undertakes major responsibility for the Supreme Court as an institution by presiding at oral arguments and at conferences in which the justices discuss and preliminarily resolve appeals and by facilitating collegial relationships among nine extraordinarily independent, intelligent and powerful individuals. The chief must guarantee that the court expeditiously, inexpensively and fairly resolves more than 7,000 cases a year and is responsible for its staff and a $69 million budget. Duties outside the high court These are some of the most obvious roles. However, the chief assumes many other duties. As Chief Justice Warren Burger was fond of remarking, the official title is “Chief Justice of the United States,” not solely the court. This means the chief leads the Supreme Court and the entire federal judiciary when honoring the lofty injunction of the Constitution’s preamble “to establish justice.” The chief discharges multifarious tasks as the federal judiciary’s “face.” Most important is chairing the U.S. Judicial Conference, the 13 appellate and 94 district courts’ policymaking arm, and having responsibility for the Federal Judicial Center and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the judiciary’s research and administrative arms. The chief correspondingly appoints members of conference committees, such as those that study federal court rules and recommend improvements to the court. The chief also represents the federal judiciary before Congress, informing lawmakers about judicial needs and urging them to appropriate the requisite funds, and encouraging felicitous Senate discharge of its advice and consent responsibility vis-�-vis the president’s judicial nominees. These actions concomitantly safeguard judicial independence. Finally, the chief issues year-end reports, which assess significant developments, including docket rises and new jurisdictional statutes. Another increasingly significant power is naming Article III judges to special judicial bodies that resolve disputes in essential fields, such as global terrorism, mass torts and immigration. Appointments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have great import in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, environment: Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist named more than 50 judges to the special tribunals. Rehnquist fulfilled these duties with consummate skill. For example, he persuaded legislators to budget sufficient judicial resources. In 1998 and 2001, when appointments stalled, the chief similarly remonstrated both political parties to expedite selection. He also employed speeches and year-end reports in admonishing lawmakers not to erode judicial independence. When Representative James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the House Judiciary Committee chair, voiced concern about judicial misconduct and discipline, Rehnquist astutely named a distinguished commission to evaluate the regime. Numerous, recent developments make imperative the selection of a chief who will vigorously defend judicial independence. For instance, congressional efforts related to the Terri Schiavo litigation placed judges in an untenable position. When courts ruled in a way that some in Congress opposed, these members threatened the judges with retribution, even suggesting impeachment. The murders of a Chicago federal judge’s spouse and parent and rising courthouse violence have also jeopardized independence. Indeed, this spring, Representative Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said: “We set up the courts. We can unset the courts. We have the power of the purse.” In short, the chief must resist vociferously threats by a co-equal branch, with power over court funding and jurisdiction, which may undermine judicial independence. With Rehnquist’s untimely death, senators must remember the many tasks the chief discharges when they exercise advice and consent. The Senate will ignore those important duties at the peril of the nation’s justice system, while the courts have a compelling need for a leader who will staunchly defend judicial independence. Confirming a nominee who will safeguard that independence as effectively as Rehnquist did for nearly two decades would be a fitting tribute. Carl Tobias is the Williams Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.

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