“For more than a century, the courts have not had to respond to such a widespread public health emergency,” Roberts wrote in his annual Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, issued on New Year’s Eve.
“This year, more than ever,” he wrote, “I am privileged and honored to thank all of the judges, court staff, and other judicial branch personnel throughout the Nation for their outstanding service.”
Also this past year, more than ever, Roberts and the court became entangled in all manner of legal issues concerning Trump — starting with the chief justice’s role in presiding over the president’s impeachment trial in the Senate, where Trump was acquitted.
If liberals griped about Roberts’s hands-off approach during the proceedings, conservatives were outraged about what came next.
Roberts played the key role in denying the Trump administration’s plans to end the program protecting “dreamers” brought to this country illegally while they were young, and in refuting the president’s claim to be immune from investigations by local prosecutors and Congress. He ruled against the administration’s positions in saying federal law protected LGBTQ workers and in striking a Texas abortion law.
More stinging to Trump, the court has turned aside the two challenges to the election results that the court has considered. In rejecting suits targeting results in Pennsylvania and other battleground states, not a single justice has indicated a willingness to provide the relief sought.
“The Supreme Court really let us down,” Trump tweeted after the court rejected an unprecedented effort by Texas and the president to set aside election results in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia. “No Wisdom, No Courage!”
Last weekend, the president opened fire again: “The U.S. Supreme Court has been totally incompetent and weak on the massive Election Fraud that took place in the 2020 Presidential Election.”
No court or investigation has found the fraud the president alleges. And with Congress scheduled to count electoral votes next week, the Supreme Court has shown no urgency in getting involved in eight separate challenges that have been filed at the high court.
Roberts has been pilloried on conservative social media as a result, although the decision is not solely up to him — he controls only one of nine votes on the court, which includes three justices selected by Trump.
But the chief justice, chosen by President George W. Bush in 2005, has not responded in any way. The court’s dismissal of the Texas challenge was perfunctory and cloaked in legal language about the state not having the legal standing to bring such a case about other states’ election procedures.
In the report, Roberts instead noted how the coronavirus pandemic had disrupted the court’s work.
“In March, the Supreme Court asked employees to work remotely,” Roberts wrote. “We moved the weight of our attorney filings and opinion announcements online. And in May we held oral argument by teleconference for the first time. Although we look forward to returning to normal sittings in our Courtroom, we have been able to stay current in our work.”
It is unknown when that return will be, but the court has decided to continue teleconference hearings for its January arguments.
An appendix showed, though, how the work of the court has slowed, part of a steady decline. Twenty-five years ago, the court heard arguments in 94 cases; that number fell to 73 in the term that ended this past summer.
Roberts praised innovations in the lower courts involving the use of video, partitioning courtrooms to make those who had to come to court more safe and “drive-through” naturalization ceremonies in Florida and Michigan. He praised the citizens who showed up for jury duty.
And he noted that the challenges were not unprecedented. Just a few years after the Supreme Court first convened 230 years ago, Chief Justice John Jay had to cancel a sitting of the court in Philadelphia because of a yellow-fever epidemic. In 1918, the court canceled sessions because of the outbreak of flu pandemic.
It has become an annual tradition for Roberts to begin his report with a historical anecdote. This time it involved that first session of the court in 1790. There were no cases to hear, so Jay and a colleague began circuit-riding, traveling around the young country to hear cases in lower courts. Jay assigned himself the Eastern Circuit, which included his home state of New York, Roberts wrote.
“Justices John Rutledge and James Iredell, who skipped the first session of the Supreme Court, were assigned to the Southern Circuit, which required 1,800 miles of travel — providing yet another lesson in what happens when you miss a meeting,” Roberts wrote.