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The New York Times •January 1, 2020
WASHINGTON — As Chief Justice John Roberts prepares to preside over the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, he issued pointed remarks Tuesday in his year-end report on the state of the federal judiciary that seemed to be addressed, at least in part, to the president himself.
The two men have a history of friction, and Roberts used the normally mild report to denounce false information spread on social media and to warn against mob rule. Some passages could be read as a mission statement for the chief justice’s plans for the impeachment trial itself.
“We should reflect on our duty to judge without fear or favor, deciding each matter with humility, integrity and dispatch,” he wrote in the report. “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.”
The nominal focus of the report was the importance of civics education, but even a casual reader could detect a timely subtext, one concerned with the foundational importance of the rule of law.
Roberts began his report, as is his custom, with a bit of history, recalling a riot at which John Jay, an author of the Federalist Papers and later the first chief justice, was struck in the head by a rock “thrown by a rioter motivated by a rumor.”
Jay and his colleagues, Roberts wrote, “ultimately succeeded in convincing the public of the virtues of the principles embodied in the Constitution.”
“Those principles leave no place for mob violence,” the chief justice wrote. “But in the ensuing years, we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside. 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. The judiciary has an important role to play in civic education.”
The report seemed to continue a conversation with Trump about the role of the courts.
In 2018, the two men had a sharp exchange, with Trump suggesting that federal judges carry out the wishes of the presidents who appointed them and Roberts defending the independence and integrity of the judicial branch.
The exchange started when Trump called a judge who had ruled against his administration’s asylum policy “an Obama judge.” In response, the chief justice said the president had misunderstood the role of the federal courts in the constitutional system.
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said in a statement. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”
Trump took issue with the chief justice’s statement on Twitter. “Sorry Chief Justice John Roberts, but you do indeed have ‘Obama judges,’” Trump wrote, “and they have a much different point of view than the people who are charged with the safety of our country.”
On Tuesday, the chief justice returned to his theme. “We should celebrate our strong and independent judiciary, a key source of national unity and stability,” he wrote. “But we should also remember that justice is not inevitable.”
The friction with the president has only added to the delicate spot the chief justice will find himself in when he takes on his constitutionally assigned duty to preside over Trump’s Senate trial. Trump has repeatedly pinned the future of his presidency on the trial, the details and timing of which have not been set.
Roberts’ report concentrated on the central role the judiciary has played in educating the public, notably by issuing accessible decisions, in both senses of the word.
“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.”
Current Supreme Court decisions in major cases are much longer than the ruling in Brown. Citizens United, the 2010 campaign finance decision, was 176 pages long, with roughly the same number of words as “The Great Gatsby.”
Roberts praised the many educational programs offered by federal courts across the nation in which students are invited to visit courthouses. He did not address the role that camera coverage of arguments at the Supreme Court, currently forbidden, could play in civics education.
The chief justice singled out, but did not name, a colleague, praising his exemplary educational work. “As just one example,” Roberts wrote, “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.”
That judge is Merrick Garland, who was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama in 2016 but denied a hearing by Senate Republicans. Trump appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacancy.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2019 The New York Times Company


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