Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. has been criticized over his selection of judges who sit on the secret court that oversees government surveillance programs, but a new study shows he has a more balanced approach when it comes to filling key roles in the rest of the federal court system.
Roberts has only slightly favored judges who were appointed by Republican presidents when selecting the chairs of committees of the U.S. Judicial Conference, whose tasks include overseeing the budgets and formulating official positions on legislation, according to a Brookings Institution study published Thursday.
Republicans are underrepresented for those chairman assignments under Roberts' leadership, if taking into account the percentage of Republican appointees in the pool of judges eligible based on experience, Brookings fellow Russell Wheeler, the study’s author, wrote.
Roberts has selected Republican appointees for committee chairs 56 percent of the time since his elevation to chief justice in 2005, Wheeler found. When Obama became president in 2008, 60 percent of federal judges were Republican appointees, and most of Obama's appointees don't have enough experience to take on a second role.
That is noticeably less that his predecessor's appointments to those spots. Chief Justice William Rehnquist selected Republican appointees for 77 percent of the committee chairs, Wheeler reported.
The judicial conference's work has significant consequences for the administration of the judiciary. The chief justice presides over the judicial conference and more than 200 members to its 25 committees, almost all of them federal circuit and district judges. Most chairs serve for three years.
"Examining those appointments is important because the work of the Conference is consequential and because the appointments shed light on how Roberts performs his role as chief justice," Wheeler wrote.
Roberts' role as chief justice on matters outside the courtroom has been in the spotlight recently amid the national debate over the government’s wide collection of phone records and other communication.
The chief justice's picks for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have been lopsided—predominantly judges who were appointed under a Republican president. Ten of the 11 judges on the secret court are Republican appointees, as have been 86 percent of all of Roberts' designees for the court, according to a recent New York Times analysis. The presiding FISA court judge, Reggie Walton, was nominated to the trial bench by then-President George W. Bush.
"Critics say that a FISA court dominated by Republican appointees is likely to be overly sympathetic to government requests," Wheeler wrote. "This controversy has awakened a broader debate about the authority that has accumulated in the office of chief justice."