Chief Justice Says Each Generation Owes the Next a ‘Fully Functioning’ Government

January 6, 2020 by Dan McCue
Chief Justice John Roberts

WASHINGTON – Chief Justice John Roberts issued his year-end report on the judiciary last week, coming closer than ever to publicly commenting on the partisan divide that has gripped the federal government.

“Each generation has an obligation to pass on to the next, not only a fully functioning government responsive to the needs of the people, but the tools to understand and improve it,” Roberts wrote.

And in a nod, perhaps, to his own role in the upcoming impeachment trial of President Trump, he suggested that members of the judiciary “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 before 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,” Roberts said.

Much of the chief justice’s report is a celebration of judges across the country who have actively engaged in civic education, but Roberts also took the opportunity to issue a warning about the spreading of false information and its tendency to be acted upon by ill-informed mobs.

He did so using one of his favorite devices: the historical anecdote.

In this case, Roberts recalled the writing of the Federalist Papers. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay all had a hand in writing the historic tract, sharing the pseudonym “Publius.”

Since that time, historians have deciphered the authorship of the individual essays and have found, in Roberts words, that “John Jay appears to have shouldered the lightest load of the trio, producing only five of the articles.

“Perhaps if Jay had  been more productive, America might have rewarded him with a Broadway musical,” the chief justice jokes.

But the levity doesn’t last long. Roberts notes historians now agree that Jay’s productivity was hindered by injuries he sustained in an event that occurred as the Federalist Papers were being written — the Doctor’s riot.

The controversy that led to the riot stemmed from a series of New York newspaper reports in the winter of 1788 that said medical students were robbing graves in order to practice surgery on cadavers.

“In April,” Roberts wrote, “the chatter gelled into a rumor that students at New York Hospital were dissecting a schoolboy’s recently deceased mother

“An angry mob stormed the hospital, and the mayor gave some of the medical staff refuge in the city jail. When the mob marched on the jail, John Jay, who lived nearby, grabbed his sword and joined Governor [DeWitt] Clinton to quell the riot.

“In the ensuing commotion, a rioter struck Jay in the head with a rock, knocking him unconscious and leaving him, according to one account, with ‘two large holes in his forehead,'” Roberts said.

Though Hamilton and Madison pressed on and finished the Federalist Papers, “It is sadly ironic that John Jay’s efforts to educate his fellow citizens about the Framers’ plan of government fell victim to a rock thrown by a rioter motivated by a rumor.”

“In the ensuing years, we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside,” Roberts wrote. “In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumors and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.”

The balance of Roberts’ report focused on the “important role” the judiciary has to play in civic education.

“When judges render their judgments through written opinions that explain their reasoning, they advance public understanding of the law,” he wrote. “Chief Justice Earl Warren illustrated the power of a judicial decision as a teaching tool in Brown v. Board of Education, the great school desegregation case.

“His unanimous opinion on the most pressing issue of the era was a mere 11 pages — short enough that newspapers could publish all or almost all of it and every citizen could understand the court’s rationale. Today, federal courts post their opinions online, giving the public instant access to the reasoning behind the judgments that affect their lives,” the chief justice said.

Roberts also lauded the multitude of educational programs offered by federal courts across the nation. “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,” he said.

That judge is Merrick Garland, who was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama in 2016 but denied a hearing by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

He also acknowledged retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who  helped to found iCivics, a non-profit that engages students in meaningful civic learning through free resources, including video gaming.

“As they say, to reach people you have to meet them where they are,” Roberts said, noting Justice Sonia Sotomayor “has picked up the torch in that effort.”

Before closing  his report, the chief justice returned to one of his most consistent themes. “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,” he said.

Supreme Court Caseload

The report said the number of cases filed in the Supreme Court increased from 6,315 filings during the 2017 Term to 6,442 filings in the 2018 Term.

The number of cases filed in the Court’s in forma pauperis docket increased five percent from 4,595 filings in the 2017 Term to 4,847 filings in the 2018 Term. The number of cases filed in the Court’s paid docket decreased seven percent from 1,720 filings in the 2017 Term to 1,595 filings in the 2018 Term.

During the 2018 Term, 73 cases were argued and 69 were disposed of in 66 signed opinions, compared to 69 cases argued and 63 disposed of in 59 signed opinions in the 2017 Term.

The Court also issued two per curiam decisions during the 2018 Term.

The Federal Courts of Appeals

In the regional courts of appeals, filings fell two percent to 48,486. Appeals involving pro se litigants, which amounted to 49 percent of filings, declined four percent. Total civil appeals decreased three percent.

Reductions of three percent also occurred in appeals of administrative agency decisions and in bankruptcy appeals. Original proceedings dropped one percent. Criminal appeals rose two percent.

The Federal District Courts

Civil case filings in the U.S. district courts increased five percent to 297,877. 

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