Chief Justice: Being Chancellor Is a Fun Distraction

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By Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson

June 13 — What's more remarkable than being the Chief Justice of the United States? Being the Chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution, according to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Chancellor is an even more impressive-sounding title than Chief Justice, Roberts said Feb. 3 at the New England School of Law in Boston.

But since 1850, those two titles have been shared by one man, Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas told Bloomberg BNA June 13.

That's because the Chief Justice is an ex officio member of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents.

There are some “odd historical reasons why that is so,” Roberts said—namely, consistency and non-partisanship.

Growing Responsibilities

“The Chief Justice’s responsibilities have grown steadily,” the Federal Judicial Center's website says.

“By statute, the Chief Justice presides over the Judicial Conference (28 U.S.C. § 331), selects the director and deputy director of the Administrative Office (28 U.S.C. § 601), chairs the Board of the Federal Judicial Center (28 U.S.C. § 621(a)(1)), designates judges to serve on the Judicial Panel for Multidistrict Litigation (28 U.S.C. § 1407 (d)) and on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (50 U.S.C. § 1803 (a)), and assigns district and circuit judges to serve temporarily in circuits other than their own (28 U.S.C. §§ 291–292).”

“These statutory duties give rise to other responsibilities: The Chief Justice serves as the federal judiciary’s ultimate advocate and spokesperson with respect to legislation affecting administration of the federal courts—a duty that has become routine since William Howard Taft served as Chief Justice (1921–1930). The Chief Justice also appoints the some 200 members of the extensive committee system of the Judicial Conference,” the Federal Judicial Center says.

But “Congress has also assigned the Chief Justice an important duty that is unrelated to the judicial function or to federal court governance: to serve on the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution,” it says.

Non-Partisan Board

The Smithsonian is the largest museum complex in the world, Roberts said. It has “19 museums and galleries and the National Zoological Park,” according to its website.

In its 1846 charter, Congress named an impressive roster to the Board of Regents, which “govern[s] and administer[s] the organization,” the website says.

The 17-member board “includes the Chief Justice of the United States and the Vice President of the United States as ex officio members of the Board,” meaning “that they serve as a duty of their office.”

That's in part because Congress wanted the body to be non-partisan, St. Thomas said.

She noted that all three branches of the government are represented on the board. In addition to the V.P. and Chief Justice, the board consists of three members of the U.S. House of Representatives and three members of the U.S. Senate.

The remaining nine spots are filled with members of the public.

Need Reliability

The Chief Justice not only sits on the board, but he presides over the board's meetings as Chancellor of the Smithsonian.

“Originally, in 1846 when Smithsonian was established, the Vice President was the Chancellor,” St. Thomas said.

But that didn't last long.

“We have often had no vice president,” for example, when “LBJ took over as president when Kennedy was assassinated,” St. Thomas said.

So the board decided to go with the Chief Justice because it was more reliable, she said.

Fun Distraction

So how does the current Chief Justice and Chancellor like the job?

It's “fun,” he said Feb. 3.

It isn't just a ceremonial position, Roberts said, noting that he personally chairs the board's four meetings each year.

He said he tries to stay out of the pure policy areas and let the people who know what they're talking about handle that part, but the position does take up more time than he originally thought it would.

But, it's a “nice distraction from the legal work,” Roberts said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at and Jeffrey D. Koelemay at

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