Chief Justice John Roberts stresses frugality in year-end report

December 31, 2012

The Supreme Court finished its most closely examined term in years last June when it narrowly upheld the Affordable Care Act. On the horizon are potentially landmark decisions on affirmative action and same-sex marriage.

But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. mentioned none of that in his annual year-end Report on the Federal Judiciary, issued Monday.

He stressed frugality rather than controversy in his eighth report as chief justice, saying the federal courts already are doing their part in holding the line on spending.

“No one seriously doubts that the country’s fiscal ledger has gone awry,” Roberts wrote in a report issued as President Obama and congressional leaders continued to work toward a deal on taxes and spending.

“The public properly looks to its elected officials to craft a solution. We in the judiciary stand outside the political arena, but we can continue to do our part to address the financial challenges within our sphere.”


The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

But Roberts said the Supreme Court, all other federal courts, the Federal Judicial Center and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts together consume a “minuscule” portion of the federal budget: $6.97 billion of a $3.7 trillion allocation.

“Yes, for each citizen’s tax dollar, only two-tenths of one penny go toward funding the entire third branch of government!” Roberts wrote. “Those fractions of a penny are what Americans pay for a judiciary that is second to none.”

Some Senate leaders have expressed concern that the judiciary has not developed contingency plans for cuts should congressional leaders not reach an agreement on the “fiscal cliff.”

But Roberts noted that, unlike executive departments, the courts “do not have discretionary programs they can eliminate or projects they can postpone. The courts must resolve all criminal and civil cases that fall within their jurisdiction, often under tight time constraints.”

He repeated his call for the political branches to solve a stalemate that will mean more vacancies on the federal bench at the end of Obama’s first term than there were when he took office in 2009. He did not choose sides in a debate about whether the fault lies with the president’s pace of nominations or Senate Republicans stalling even noncontroversial nominations.

“At the close of 2012, 27 of the existing judicial vacancies are designated as presenting judicial emergencies,” Roberts wrote. “I urge the executive and legislative branches to act diligently in nominating and confirming highly qualified candidates to fill those vacancies.”

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.
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