Roberts to Congress: Thanks, but we’ve got it all under control

For 2022, the Chief Justice leans into an alternative view of judicial independence. Will it be enough to keep Congress at bay?

Chief Justice Roberts’s 2021 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, dropped (as always) on New Years Eve, struck a more substantive and somewhat edgier tone than in years past. The Chief Justice identified three particular areas of focus for the Judicial Conference of the United States in the coming year: addressing financial disclosure and recusal obligations for federal judges, monitoring new mechanisms for reporting and stopping workplace harrassment, and preventing undue forum shopping in patent cases.

All three of these issues have been the subject of regular, and sometimes intense, Congressional scrutiny in recent years. But the Chief Justice’s report largely rejects the prospect of legislative fixes. Rather, consistent with the federal courts’ approach to the workplace harrassment scandal when it first broke in 2017, Roberts assures his readers that the Judicial Conference is willing and able to handle each of these issues internally. 

It’s not to see why the Chief Justice would go this route. As this blog has routinely described, the federal courts (like all courts, and indeed all organizations) operate under constant pressure from their external environments. Neoinstitutional theory identifies three types of pressure: coercive (the need to comply with legislation and other government mandates), mimetic (the need to be in line with similar institutions in order to maintain legitimacy), and normative (the need to adhere to social and professional norms). The federal courts face all three types of pressure, but are particularly susceptible to coercive and normative pressures. If the federal judiciary is not seen as ethical and apolitical, it will face Congressional action and lose legitimacy with the bar, the media, and the public. 

There is no question that the pressure has been turned up in recent weeks. The Wall Street Journal‘s expose on federal judges who failed to recuse from cases in which they held a financial stake was a significant blow to the judiciary, and has invited Congressional hearings. Some in Congress have used the scandal as an opportunity to resurrect additional transparency proposals, including courtroom cameras and free PACER access. And, of course, the progressive effort to pack the Supreme Court looms in the background, along with the ongoing politicization of judicial confirmation hearings and the Supreme Court’s forthcoming decisions on abortion and gun rights. It is fair to say that the federal courts are currently facing more external pressure and scrutiny than at any time since the 1960s. Continue reading “Roberts to Congress: Thanks, but we’ve got it all under control”

Chief Justice will not preside over second Trump impeachment trial

Instead, it will be Senator Patrick Leahy in his capacity as president pro tempore of the Senate.

Historically, is not uncommon for officials other than the Chief Justice to preside over impeachment trials. But it remains unclear why Roberts will not be presiding in this instance. Did he subtly send signals that he was not interested? Was he trying to avoid a potential recusal should the trial result be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court? Was he never asked to preside?

Some interesting thoughts from Gerard Magliocca here and Ann Althouse here.

Chief Justice issues 2020 Year End Report

Per longstanding tradition, while you were anxiously coaxing 2020 into oblivion last night, the Chief Justice quietly issued his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. Also per tradition, this year’s report features more musty anecdotes about the courts, this time focused (predictably) on pandemics. The Chief Justice congratulates the entire court system on its turn to video hearings and trials in the wake of the COVID-19 spread.

Kudos are indeed in order for reacting relatively swiftly, but I will save my formal congratulations for when the federal courts embrace technology with foresight and a commitment to transparency. Here’s an area where the federal courts could learn much from their state counterparts, if they are willing.

Assessing the Supreme Court’s new oral argument format

When the coronavirus pandemic forced it to move to telephonic oral arguments last May, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted a new format. Each Justice, in descending order of seniority, was afforded three minutes to ask questions of each side. The result was much cleaner, and in many ways more interesting, that the conversational scrum that typically erupts at One First Street. Justice Thomas has come alive, knowing that he will be able to get a question out without interruption. And while more junior Justices have some of the wind taken out of their sails for having to wait their turn, some of the follow-up questions have proven to be equally interesting and clarifying.

Of course, not everyone is happy with the new format, and Bloomberg Law reporter Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson has been all over it. Last month, she explained that it has been harder for advocates and reporters to get a sense of what’s on the mind of Amy Coney Barrett, the juniormost Justice, since she is last in the queue to ask questions. And recently, she reported that many of the Justices themselves dislike the format, specifically because it stifles the freewheeling discussion to which they are accustomed. In particular, Justice Breyer, who likes to tease out lengthy hypotheticals during oral argument, has been frustrated to hear the Chief Justice say “your time is up” before the question is even complete.

I’m not sure there is an answer that will please everyone. My gut instinct is to extend the time for oral argument — there is nothing magical about 30 minutes per side — but that will probably just invite more palaverous and repetitive questions. What about submitting written questions to the parties after the argument? I’m just spitballing here. But having enjoyed getting to hear Justice Thomas’s thinking during telephonic hearings — not to mention the clarity of not having everyone talk over each other — I would hate to just have a knee-jerk reversion to the old system when the pandemic subsides.

Does the Roberts Court’s view of executive and legislative power present an alternative case for court reform?

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

In his recent essay, The cravenness of Democratic “Court reform” proposals, Jordan Singer responds to the left-leaning critics of the Supreme Court term just ended who have lamented the results in cases on choice, immigration and employment discrimination—not because the Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, failed to reach the results these critics support, but because it did. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, for example, concludes that Roberts, “by refusing to inflame passions further,” may have stemmed “the tide and accomplish[ed] the coveted goal of his GOP critics—preserving the Court’s current conservative majority.” And law professors Kent Greenfield and Adam Winkler prophecy “the moderation shown by Roberts has all but guaranteed a conservative Supreme Court for a generation.”

As Singer explains, these critiques reveal a Democratic goal since the failed Merrick Garland nomination in 2016: “to punish Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump by radically restructuring the Court itself.” The restructuring plans have taken many forms, from imposing term limits on Supreme Court justices to expanding the number of justices who sit on the high court. These reform efforts turn on the belief that, since McConnell and the Republicans refused even to consider Garland, the Court’s legitimacy has suffered—with decisionmaking in controversial cases compounding the problem. The argument for Court reform falters, however, in the face of outcomes that tend to match the views of a majority of Americans – as they did this term in cases concerning choice, immigration and employment discrimination, in all of which Chief Justice Roberts either wrote or sided with the majority.

Professing concerns about the legitimacy of the Court’s decisonmaking is a broad brush with which to paint, and such concerns tend to be overblown: an institution that has survived decisions in cases like Brown v. Board of Education, Bush v. Gore, and District of Columbia v. Heller is not likely to be cast aside by the American people any time soon. Still, there is a tendency among the Court’s current membership that should be cause for genuine concern: the near-abandonment in cases involving the structural constitution and the separation of powers of any sense of judicial restraint. Continue reading “Does the Roberts Court’s view of executive and legislative power present an alternative case for court reform?”

When should judges speak out?

Justice Sonia Sotomayor drew attention last week when she filed a dissent in a case staying the issuance of a preliminary injunction against the federal government. The injunction had been issued by a federal district judge in Chicago, and barred the Trump Administration from implementing a “public charge” policy that would require immigrants seeking green cards to demonstrate that they would not need government assistance. Beyond disagreeing with the majority’s decision to overturn the injunction, Justice Sotomayor expressed dismay with her colleagues’ readiness to entertain “extraordinary” appeals from the Trump Administration, rather than letting those appeals first work their way through the intermediate appellate courts. She wrote:

[T]his Court is partly to blame for the breakdown in the appellate process. That is because the Court—in this case, the New York cases, and many others—has been all too quick to grant the Government’s “reflexiv[e]” requests. But make no mistake: Such a shift in the Court’s own behavior comes at a cost. Stay applications force the Court to consider important statutory and constitutional questions that have not been ventilated fully in the lower courts, on abbreviated timetables and without oral argument. They upend the normal appellate process, putting a thumb on the scale in favor of the party that won a stay. (Here, the Government touts that in granting a stay in the New York cases, this Court “necessarily concluded that if the court of appeals were to uphold the preliminary injunctio[n], the Court likely would grant a petition for a writ of certiorari” and that “there was a fair prospect the Court would rule in favor of the government.”) They demand extensive time and resources when the Court’s intervention may well be unnecessary—particularly when, as here, a court of appeals is poised to decide the issue for itself.

Perhaps most troublingly, the Court’s recent behavior on stay applications has benefited one litigant over all others. This Court often permits executions—where the risk of irreparable harm is the loss of life—to proceed, justifying many of those decisions on purported failures “to raise any potentially meritorious claims in a timely manner.” Yet the Court’s concerns over quick decisions wither when prodded by the Government in far less compelling circumstances—where the Government itself chose to wait to seek relief, and where its claimed harm is continuation of a 20-year status quo in one State. I fear that this disparity in treatment erodes the fair and balanced decisionmaking process that this Court must strive to protect.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dissent drew vindictive attention from President Trump, who took time away from his visit to India to chastise Sotomayor and suggest that both she and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who publicly criticized Trump in July 2016) recuse themselves from all future cases involving Trump or the Trump Administration. “I just don’t know how they cannot recuse themselves with anything having to do with Trump or Trump-related,” the President said.

The U.S. Supreme Court was not alone in facing scrutiny for the perceived political statements of judges. In Alaska, Chief Justice Joel Bolger has been drawn into a controversy surrounding an effort to recall the state’s governor, Mike Dunleavy. Proponents of the recall allege (among other things) that the governor showed lack of fitness for the office by refusing to appoint a trial judge within the 45-day period prescribed by statute, and by “improperly using the line-item veto to … attack the judiciary and the rule of law.” The legality of the recall was challenged in court, and the state supreme court will hear the case on March 25. But some are calling for Bolger to recuse himself from the recall decision, given that Bolger commented on the governor’s behavior at the time of the trial judge appointment controversy. (Bolger also criticized the line-term veto in a separate speech.) Bolger has declined to remove himself from the case of his own volition, but the supreme court did take the unusual step of issuing a letter inviting motions to disqualify if others felt it was warranted.

It is certainly true that judges must take care in their public pronouncements, especially as they relate to politics, public policy, or other government officials. Diving recklessly into partisan political debate is a time-honored recipe for eroding the legitimacy of the judicial branch. But it is also true that the judiciary is an independent branch of government, and should have a voice on issues that affect it as an institution. Where do we draw a sensible line?

Continue reading “When should judges speak out?”

Chief Justice makes new appointments to the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference

Judge Claire Eagan (N.D. Okla.) is the new Chair, replacing Judge Merrick Garland. Judge Lavenski Smith (8th Circuit) also joins the Committee as a new member.

More on the Executive Committee here.

McConnell gives “golden gavel” to John Roberts after impeachment trial

After the close of the impeachment trial of President Trump this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell presented Chief Justice John Roberts with a “golden gavel.” The token is ordinarily presented to Senators who have sat in the presiding chair for 100 hours. Roberts certainly filled that minimal qualification during his many hours presiding over the trial.

I recently took Elizabeth Warren to task for her trial question that crassly challenged the legitimacy of Roberts and the Supreme Court. McConnell’s presentation can be seen as only a slightly more subtle effort to politicize the Chief Justice for partisan gain. True, Roberts did yeoman’s work in presiding over the trial, all the while maintaining his busy day job (which only involves hearing oral arguments, writing opinions, navigating the personalities and needs of his fellow Justices, and managing an entire branch of the federal government). And in a different era, the presentation of the golden gavel might be properly viewed as a sincere token of appreciation. In this deeply partisan environment, however, it primarily exploits the Chief Justice’s participation to court favor with Republicans — a misappropriation of judicial goodwill for partisan gain.

 

 

Warren’s attempt to question third branch legitimacy fails spectacularly

The American political scene is moving at lightning speed these days, with impeachment proceedings, the Iowa caucuses, the State of the Union, and the government’s response to the coronavirus threat all competing for our attention. But I would be remiss if I failed to note the outrageous question that Senator Elizabeth Warren posed during the impeachment trial last week.

All questions, of course, were required to be written on notecards and passed to Chief Justice Roberts, who read them aloud for response by either the House Managers or the President’s lawyers. Here is what Warren asked:

“At a time when large majorities of Americans have lost faith in government, does the fact that the chief justice is presiding over an impeachment trial in which Republican senators have thus far refused to allow witnesses or evidence contribute to the loss of legitimacy of the chief justice, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution?”

Oh, good grief. Roberts has to preside over the trial — it’s right in the Constitution. Calling into question the legitimacy of the entire Supreme Court and the Constitution during a partisan political skirmish was both cheap politics and degrading to the very foundation of American democracy. And she was roundly scolded for the stunt, from observers on all sides of the political spectrum.

This blog has chastised the President and many others for their similar tendencies to attack the courts’ legitimacy when they cannot achieve their political objectives. Let’s add Elizabeth Warren to that list as well. If she truly wants to improve Americans’ faith in government, perhaps she could start by showing appropriate respect for its institutions and design.

Seeking a more muscular judiciary

I have a new op-ed up at The Hill, urging the judiciary to be more outspoken about the rule of law and the role of courts in our society. A snippet:

The courts today could use a healthy dose of [John Jay’s] swashbuckling spirit. They are uniquely situated to reaffirm our core legal values in the public sphere, and to reassert their position as an equal branch of government. This is not to say that the courts should willingly inject themselves into partisan debates. Not every political exercise is a partisan one, however, and the courts are well within their institutional role to remind the other branches, the media, and the public of our shared and cherished legal tradition, and to take appropriate measures to ensure it remains intact.

Please read the whole thing!