Contact:  Sandy Adkins
Communications Specialist
National Center for State Courts
757.259.1515

 

How are state chief justices chosen?

Recent proposed legislation in some states would tinker with how state chief justices are chosen to lead third branch

Williamsburg, Va. (July 27, 2011) — Chief justices are the highest authority of the judicial branch of government, and play significant leadership roles in ensuring that justice is fairly administered in the states. Recent legislative proposals in some states have aimed to modify who sits in the chief justice's chambers.

A 2010 proposal in Utah would have removed the power of the Supreme Court to name its own chief justice and given that power to the state's governor. A 2010 proposal in Arizona would have modified that state's "merit selection" appointment system to demand that candidates for the chief justice's seat also run in a contested statewide election. Earlier this year, the legislature in Florida contemplated a drastic overhaul of the entire Supreme Court, which would have resulted in the governor choosing the state's top judge. 

Most recently, a proposed constitutional amendment in Wisconsin would have abolished that state's seniority system, instead suggesting that "each time a justice is elected or reelected and takes the oath of office, the court shall elect a chief justice as its first order of business." Also this year, the District of Columbia's City Council considered a bill to give D.C.'s Court of Appeals, rather than the existing judicial nominating commission, the power to name its chief judge.

None of these five recent changes have been adopted, but they do highlight a trend in state legislative activity to tinker with judicial selection methods. The following table shows a breakdown of how states select their chief justices.

Selection Method

Number of Courts*

Courts

Court selects

23

Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota1, Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, Oklahoma Supreme Court, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming, West Virginia

Governor selects

12

See next table

Seniority

7

Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin

Elected statewide

8

Alabama, Arkansas, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas Supreme Court

Other

3

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.

It should be noted that in cases where a chief justice is elected to office, interim vacancies are often filled by governors. In Minnesota, for example, such appointments have been the sole source for every chief justice since at least 1981.

In most states where the decision rests with the governor, there are additional steps prior to or after the appointment. The following table outlines these steps.

Gubernatorial Selection Method

Courts

Governor appoints

California, Delaware, Maine, Maryland

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

New Jersey

Governor appoints with approval of elected executive council

Massachusetts

Nominating commission submits names to governor, who appoints

Nebraska

 

*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.