Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts caused something of a year-end stir upon the release of his 2019 Year-End Report.
The brief 7-page document is an annual reflection on the role and public perception of the federal judiciary. Legal observers were quick to note a few interesting passages in the civics-minded publication.
“I ask my judicial colleagues to continue their efforts to promote public confidence in the judiciary, both through their rulings and through civic outreach,” Roberts wrote near the report’s end. “We should celebrate our strong and independent judiciary, a key source of national unity and stability. But we should also remember that justice is not inevitable. We should reflect on our duty to judge without fear or favor, deciding each matter with humility, integrity, and dispatch. As the New Year begins, and we turn to the tasks be-fore us, we should each resolve to do our best to maintain the public’s trust that we are faithfully discharging our solemn obligation to equal justice under law.”
The Economist Supreme Court reporter David Mazie wondered whether the above passage might be read as “a subtle rebuke of some conservative lower-court judges whose recent opinions read like partisan screeds.”
Public trust in the courts is a well-worn theme for the Chief. Nothing new there. But these comments—and Roberts’s direct “ask” of his colleagues—have a different ring in light of some recent brazenly partisan rulings from lower-court judges. 7/
— Steven Mazie (@stevenmazie) December 31, 2019
In support of that thesis, Mazie cited two recent Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decisions in which right-wing rhetoric was seemingly endorsed by recent Republican-appointed judges.
“The opinion issued by the district court displays an alarming disrespect for the millions of Americans who believe that babies deserve legal protection during pregnancy as well as after birth, and that abortion is the immoral, tragic, and violent taking of innocent human life,” Judge James Ho wrote in one such opinion–forgoing the typical medical standard nomenclature–and legal term of art–of “fetuses.”
In a separate Fifth Circuit opinion, George W. Bush-appointed Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, another Federalist Society devotee, approvingly referred to Obamacare “as part of a fraud on the American people.” Mazie noted that this statement, dressed up with the “some people say” rhetorical device, cited a 2014 report by congressional Republicans which claimed the administration of Barack Obama aimed to “deceive the American people on this healthcare act.”
South Texas College of Law Professor Josh Blackman read that same passage as a direct response to President Donald Trump:
I think the reference to “civic outreach” and “discharging our solemn obligation” offers a justification for Roberts’s response to Trump’s “Obama judges” tweet. Roberts has a duty to stand up for the judiciary’s independence. pic.twitter.com/ZL973SrApL
— Josh Blackman (@JoshMBlackman) December 31, 2019
Regardless of Roberts’ exact target, the chief justice’s words left little doubt that he was concerned with the increasingly aggressive and partisan language used by his fellow travelers on the right.
“Chief Justice John Roberts in a not so veiled report tells the judiciary it must promote confidence and maintain the public’s trust,” tweeted CNN Supreme Court reporter Ariane de Vogue.
What Mazie made clear to point out, however, was that Roberts wasn’t actually concerned with the content of the buzzword-heavy messaging coming from the Trump-inflected federal judiciary. Rather, it appears, Roberts is simply concerned that conservatives are saying the quiet part a little too loud and threatening to dissolve time-honored standards of comity.
Don’t get the wrong idea: Chief Justice Roberts wants to move the constitution and the country to the right. He has done so and will continue to do so. But he wants everyone to do it more quietly. 13/13
— Steven Mazie (@stevenmazie) December 31, 2019
On the lighter side of things, Roberts also made a pointed effort to praise the Supreme Court Justice who never was. The conservative leader of the nation’s high court dedicated precious few lines to resistance heartthrob Merrick Garland.
And the context was decidedly non-political:
Individual judges at all levels of the federal court system, including bankruptcy judges and magistrate judges, are personally involved in national, regional, and local education programs. As just one example, the current Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Circuit has, over the past two decades, quietly volunteered as a tutor at a local elementary school, inspiring his court colleagues to join in the effort.
Read the full report below:
[image via screengrab/CSPAN]