But in listing ways the judiciary has reached out to the public, Roberts did not mention one possibility urged by many members of Congress and overwhelmingly supported by Americans: televising the Supreme Court’s oral arguments or streaming audio from the sessions.
The justices, Roberts included, say they fear that cameras in the court could lead to grandstanding by attorneys or disruption of the arguments. The goal of oral arguments is not to educate the public, Roberts has said, but to aid the justices in reaching a proper conclusion based on the law.
As is his custom, Roberts praised the independence of the federal judiciary, a subject on which he has crossed swords with President Trump, who has criticized as biased the judges who have ruled against him and his administration’s policies.
Roberts did not reengage in that battle. But he did seem to allude to his upcoming role in presiding over the Senate impeachment trial of the president.
“We should reflect on our duty to judge without fear or favor, deciding each matter with humility, integrity, and dispatch,” Roberts wrote. “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’s report is an annual New Year’s Eve tradition, and the chief justice picks the topic. As it was released, the court disclosed that Roberts’s mother had died over the holidays in Westminster, Md. The obituary for Rosemary Roberts, 90, said she died on Dec. 28, “surrounded by her family.”
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that this year’s topic, civic education, “is a continuing enterprise and conversation. 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.”
There were a couple of other notable inclusions in the chief justice’s report.
Roberts praised, without naming, President Barack Obama’s 2016 nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Merrick Garland, who never received a hearing in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“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,” Roberts wrote. “I am confident that many other federal judges, without fanfare or acclaim, are playing similar selfless roles throughout the country.”
Roberts also singled out the court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education as an example of how judges can communicate with the public.
Although Roberts at his 2005 confirmation hearing praised the desegregation ruling, a number of judges nominated by Trump have refused to answer Democratic senators’ questions about Brown.
They have said the questioning is an attempt to get them on the record as supporting one court precedent so they can be pressed about others, such as rulings on abortion.
Roberts seems not to have qualms.
“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,” he wrote. “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.”