The chief justice’s 2019 year-end report: The federal judiciary and civic education
on Dec 31, 2019 at 6:01 pm
Today Chief Justice John Roberts issued his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary. The 2018 report had focused on the judiciary’s response to allegations of sexual misconduct in the workplace, but the 2019 report was more upbeat, lauding the judiciary’s role in civic education.
The report began with the story of the Federalist Papers, which Roberts described as “America’s greatest civics lesson.” Roberts recounted how John Jay, one of the papers’ three authors along with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, “shouldered the lightest load of the trio, producing only five of the articles.” “Perhaps if Jay had been more productive,” Roberts observed, “America might have rewarded him with a Broadway musical.” But the reality, Roberts explained, is that Jay had fewer contributions because he was injured by “a rock thrown by a rioter motivated by a rumor.”
From there, Roberts segued to the need for civic education: “In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.” Roberts described various ways in which the “judges and staff of our federal courts are taking up the challenge” of the judiciary’s “important role to play in civic education.” Not only are judges issuing opinions, now online, that the public can read, but the judiciary is also developing educational programs for students and the general public, courthouses are hosting “learning centers” and judges are participating in naturalization ceremonies. (Roberts did not, however, mention the practice of some federal appeals courts of providing live audio or video of oral arguments, which the Supreme Court has resisted.) Roberts gave a shout-out to the “current Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Circuit” – Merrick Garland, who was nominated but never confirmed to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016 – for his longtime volunteer work as a tutor at a local elementary school.
Roberts also cited efforts beyond the judiciary, including the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and the iCivics program founded by retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. (Referring to the video games created by iCivics, Roberts wryly observed that “[a]s they say, to reach people, you have to meet them where they are.”)
Roberts’ conclusion turned away from the topic of civic education to send a message to his fellow judges. Perhaps echoing his insistence in 2018 that there is no such thing as a “Trump judge” or an “Obama judge,” and with a docket full of hot-button issues for the Supreme Court to decide in the new year, Roberts urged his colleagues to “continue their efforts to promote public confidence in the judiciary, both through their rulings and through civic outreach.” “We should celebrate our strong and independent judiciary,” Roberts continued, “a key source of national unity and stability. But we should also remember,” he cautioned, “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.”