Williamsburg, Va. (July 19, 2010) — The announcement last week that California Chief Justice Ronald M. George plans to retire is the fifth such notice of resignation this year from a state chief justice.* In the federal court system, the president appoints the chief justice of the United States, but in the states, chief justices arrive at the head of courts of last resort in a variety of ways.
Seniority and collegiality play a significant role in the process. Fifty-seven percent of state courts of last resort — 30 of 53** — select their chief justices either based on seniority or through an election held by current sitting justices. In less than a quarter of the states do the governors select the next chief justice for a full term; in some states, governors may appoint interim chief justices to fill the balance of unexpired terms. Seven states use contested partisan or nonpartisan popular elections to select their top judicial officers. The two remaining states and the District of Columbia rely either on judicial nominating commissions or their legislatures to select chief justices.
The following table shows a breakdown of how states select their chief justices:
Number of Courts
Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota1, Oklahoma (Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals), Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming
See next table
Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin
Alabama, Arkansas, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas (Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals)
By judicial nominating commission in the District of Columbia and Indiana; By Legislature in South Carolina
1 In North Dakota, the chief justice is selected jointly by the justices of the Supreme Court and the judges of the state’s district courts.
In most states where the decision rests with the governor, there are additional steps prior to or after the appointment. The following table outlines which states take which steps:
Gubernatorial Selection Method
California, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota
Nominating commission submits names to governor, who appoints with consent of one or both houses of the legislature
Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont
Governor appoints with consent of one or both houses of the legislature
Governor appoints with approval of elected executive council
Nominating commission submits names to governor, who appoints
Term as Chief Justice
Terms of service as chief justice vary by state, and states that use short terms and a rotation system often produce Supreme Courts that have several former chief justices on the bench. The following table lists the states that have term limits for state chief justices:
Term in years
Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada
District of Columbia, Idaho, Kentucky, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming
Arizona, Indiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals
Alabama, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Texas (Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals), Vermont
Arkansas, Connecticut, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina
Hawaii, South Carolina
The chief justices for the Supreme Courts of Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin stay in office until retirement or, in states where supreme courts are elected, they fail to be re-elected to the bench.
* The other states in which the chief justices recently announced pending retirements include Colorado, Hawaii, and New Hampshire. Minnesota Chief Justice Eric J. Magnuson announced his resignation earlier this year and stepped down on June 30, 2010. He was replaced by Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, who was appointed by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Successors have not yet been chosen in the other states. In addition to the five announced retirements, Ohio Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer, already set to retire at the end of 2010 as the result of Ohio’s mandatory judicial retirement age, died in April while still in office.
**The 53 state courts of last resort include the supreme courts of all 50 states, the criminal courts of last resort in Oklahoma and Texas, which are separate from those states' supreme courts, and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
The NCSC Backgrounder is designed to provide the media with statistics and facts related to current issues of interest.
The National Center for State Courts, headquartered in Williamsburg, Va., is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice by providing leadership and service to the state courts. Founded in 1971 by the Conference of Chief Justices and Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger, NCSC provides education, training, technology, management, and research services to the nation's state courts.