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FAQ: How are the chief justices selected?

July 20, 2022

By Bill Raftery

With the recent announcement that New York’s highest court (the Court of Appeals) is set to get a new chief judge, the question has come up again of how other states select their top judge. In short, there are a total of 19 different selection methods in use today, but these can be generally categorized into four main types:

Court selection: the members of the court select who will be the chief. Idaho’s constitution for example states that “The chief justice shall be selected from among the justices of the Supreme Court by a majority vote of the justice.”

Gubernatorial appointment: while some states use the federal model (governor nominates/ Senate confirms) there are nine other variations on gubernatorial appointments. Key differences are a) who does the confirmation if not the state’s senate and b) whether or not the governor is free to select any one or must select from a list provided by a judicial nominating commission.

Seniority: the chief justice is the longest-serving justice of the court. For example, Kansas’ constitution states that “The justice who is senior in continuous term of service shall be chief justice, and in case two or more have continuously served during the same period the senior in age of these shall be chief justice.”

Elected statewide: in several states, individuals run not simply to be a member of the state’s court of last resort but specifically to be the state’s chief justice. Arkansas’s constitution includes a provision that “The Supreme Court shall be composed of seven Justices, one of whom shall serve as Chief Justice. The Justices of the Supreme Court shall be selected from the State at large.”

Other: the remaining states use a variety of one-off systems. Two notable ones are North Dakota - the state’s trial court judges/ District judges along with the supreme court elect the chief justice from the currently sitting members of the supreme court and South Carolina - the legislature appoints the chief justice with no involvement by the governor.

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State/Court

Method of CJ Selection

Citation

Alabama

Statewide partisan election

Constitution (Amendment 328) sets term. Statute (Ala. Code 12-2-1) sets method.

Alaska

Court Selection

Constitution (Art. IV, Sec. 2) sets method and term.

Arizona

Court Selection

Constitution (Art. VI, Sec. 3) sets method and term.

Arkansas

Statewide nonpartisan election

Constitution (Amend. 80, Sec. 2) sets method and term.

California

Gubernatorial appointment & confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments

Constitution (Art. VI, Sec. 16) sets method and terms.

Colorado

Court Selection

Constitution (Art. VI, Sec. 5) sets method and provides CJ shall "serve at the pleasure of a majority of the court".

Connecticut

Gubernatorial appointment from judicial nominating commission with consent of the legislature

Constitution (Amendment Article XXV) sets method and terms.

Delaware

Governor with Senate confirmation

Constitution (Art. V, Secs. 2 & 3) sets the method and terms.

Florida

Court Selection

Constitution (Art. V, Sec. 2) sets method. Rule (Sup.Ct. Manual Internal Operating P. § I) sets the terms.

Georgia

Court Selection

Constitution (Article VI. Section IV. Paragraph 1) sets method. Practice has set term as 3-4 years.

Hawaii

Gubernatorial appointment from judicial nominating commission with consent of the legislature

Constitution (Art. 6, Sec. 3) sets method and terms.

Idaho

Court Selection

Constitution (Art. V, Sec. 6) sets method and term.

Illinois

Court Selection

Constitution (Art. VI, Sec. 3) sets method and term.

Indiana

Judicial nominating commission appoints from among sitting members

Constitution (Art. VII, Sec. 3) sets method and terms.

Iowa

Court Selection

Statute (Iowa Code 602.4103) sets method and term.

Kansas

Seniority

Constitution (Art. 3, Sec. 3) sets method and terms.

Kentucky

Court Selection

Constitution (Section 110(5)(a)) sets method and term.

Louisiana

Seniority

Constitution (Art. 5, Sec. 6) sets method and terms.

Maine

Gubernatorial appointment with legislative confirmation

Constitution (Art. V, Sec. 8) sets method and terms.

Maryland

Governor from among sitting members of the court

Constitution (Art. 5, Sec. 14) sets the method and terms.

Massachusetts

Gubernatorial appointment with approval of elected executive council

Constitution (Ch. II, Sec. I, Part IX) sets method and terms.

Michigan

Court Selection

Constitution (Art. VI, Sec. 3) sets method. Rules of court set term (MCR 7.301); selection of CJ occurs in each "odd-numbered year."

Minnesota

Statewide nonpartisan election

Constitution (Art. 6, Secs 2 & 7) sets method and term.

Mississippi

Seniority

Statute (Miss. Code Ann. § 9-3-11) sets method and terms.

Missouri

Court Selection

Constitution (Art. V, Sec. 8) sets method. Rules of court set term (SCR 82.01).

Montana

Statewide nonpartisan election

Statute (M.C.A. 13-14-211 through 213) sets method and terms.

Nebraska

Gubernatorial appointment from judicial nominating commission

Constitution (Art. V, Sec. 21) sets method and terms.

Nevada

Seniority

Constitution (Art. VI, Sec. 3) sets method and terms.

New Hampshire

Gubernatorial appointment & confirmed by the Governor's Council

Constitution (Art. 46) sets method and terms.

New Jersey

Governor with Senate confirmation

Constitution (Art. VI, Sec. VI) sets method and terms.

New Mexico

Court Selection

Statute (N.M.S.A. 34-2-1) sets method and term ("April of each even-numbered year").

New York

Gubernatorial appointment from judicial nominating commission with consent of Senate

Constitution (Art. VI, Sec. 2(e)) sets method and terms.

North Carolina

Statewide election

Constitution (Art. IV, Sec. 16) sets term. Statute (G.S. 163-321 through 163-335) sets method.

North Dakota

Elected by Supreme Court justices with District Court judges jointly

Statute (ND Cent. Code. 27-02-01) sets method and term.

Ohio

Statewide partisan election

Constitution (Art. IV, Sec. 6) sets method and terms.

Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals

Court Selection

Statute (O.S. 20.35) sets method and term ("next two (2) years.")

Oklahoma Supreme Court

Court Selection

Constitution (Art. 7, Sec. 2) sets method. Although there does not appear to be a specific rule, in practice the CJ have served for two years.

Oregon

Court Selection

Statute (O.R.S. 2.045) sets method and term.

Pennsylvania

Seniority

Constitution (Art. V, Sec. 10(d)) sets method and terms.

Rhode Island

Gubernatorial appointment from nominating commission with consent of both chambers of the legislature

Constitution (Art. XX, Sec. 4) sets method and terms.

South Carolina

Legislative appointment

Constitution (Art. V, Sec. 2) sets method and terms.

South Dakota

Court Selection

Constitution (Art. V, Sec. 8) grants legislature power to set.
Statute (S.D.C.L. 16-1-2.1) sets method and term.

Tennessee

Court Selection

Constitution (Art. VI, Sec. 2) sets method. Court rule (SCR 32) sets term: 4 years for first term starting on September 1, 2 years for additional, consecutive terms. But note majority of 3 may remove at any time.

Texas (Court of Criminal Appeals)

Statewide partisan election

Constitution (Art. V, Sec. 4) sets method and terms.

Texas (Supreme Court)

Statewide partisan election

Constitution (Art. V, Sec. 2) sets method and terms.

Utah

Court Selection

Statute (Utah Code 78A-3-101) sets method and term.

Vermont

Governor with Senate confirmation

Constitution (Ch. II, Sec. 32) sets method and terms.

Virginia

Court Selection

Statute (Va. Code Ann. 17.1-300) sets method and term.

Washington

Court Selection

Constitution (Art. IV, Sec. 3) sets method and term, but note that CJ is "at the pleasure of a majority of the court."

West Virginia

Court Selection

Constitution (Art. VIII, Sec. 2) gives court power to set method. Administrative orders and/or practice had set term as 1 year until 2017.

Wisconsin

Court Selection

Constitution (Art. VII, Sec. 4) sets method and term.

Wyoming

Court Selection

Constitution (Art. V, Sec. 4) sets method. Statute (W.S. § 5-2-102) provides CJ shall "serve at the pleasure of a majority of the court."