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Courts, Chief Justice, John Roberts, Supreme Court


Chief Justice Roberts has now completed five years of what is likely to be a lengthy tenure in the Court’s center seat. The quality of his institutional leadership, like that of his predecessors, resists confident contemporary assessment to a unique degree among principal offices of American government inasmuch as much of what a Chief Justice does is invisible to all but a relatively few observers, most or all of whom generally remain discreetly silent about such matters. Nonetheless, history counsels that the professional and interpersonal skill which a Chief Justice displays may substantially affect the Supreme Court and the quality of its work. This Article for a symposium on the Roberts Court suggests that the approach which David J. Danelski used to measure the leadership of Chief Justices Taft, Hughes and Stone in an important article published roughly a half century ago may prove useful in thinking about Chief Justice Roberts’s performance. Following Danelski, the Article suggests that the work of a Chief Justice may be usefully examined by analyzing the task and social leadership he or she offers. It uses Danelski’s concepts to discuss the leadership of the seven Chief Justices who preceded Roberts. The Article suggests that Danelski’s approach be modified to recognize more explicitly the crucial role of two variables which determine the influence of a Chief Justice, namely intangible leadership qualities and context. The Article suggests that Roberts possesses both the professional and interpersonal skill to become a successful Chief Justice and that his relative youth raises the possibility that he will exert extraordinary influence, depending on Court composition and other contextual factors. History’s ultimate judgment will depend on his ability to lead the Court in a direction deemed to enhance the rule of law.