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.
While you were dancing away the last hours of 2019, or perhaps just watching Ryan Seacrest, Chief Justice John Roberts was undertaking the time-honored tradition of releasing his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary under cover of darkness. This year’s theme was the judiciary’s importance in maintaining civic education, especially in an era in which fewer Americans are exposed to the brilliance of our Constitution.
I shall have more to say about this theme in a future post, but for the moment I will highlight a few of the more interesting statistics about the work of the federal courts over the past year:
- Cases argued before the Supreme Court continued to decline, with only 73 arguments taking place during October Term 2018. Compare that to 175 arguments back in OT 1984.
- In the federal district courts, civil case filings rose about 5%, and criminal filings rose about 6%.
- Bankruptcy petitions are back on the rise after a one-year drop in 2018.
Per tradition, at 6 p.m. EST on December 31, Chief Justice John Roberts released his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. Each year, the report focuses on one specific topic. For 2018, the topic–appropriately–was the work of the federal Working Group on Workplace Conduct.
Many have already focused on the #MeToo aspect of this year’s report. I want to highlight something a bit different. Far beyond discussing the specific outcomes of the Working Group’s activities, Roberts spent quite a bit of time discussing the internal mechanisms by which the Working Group’s suggestions were implemented. He highlighted the roles of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, and the various Judicial Conference subcommittees that studied and implemented the Working Group’s recommendations. The enduring image is one of a slow, careful, and multi-layered process–exactly the image the Chief Justice was likely aiming for.
Although it never goes on for more than a few pages, the Year-End Report may be the most deliberately written document that the Chief Justice writes all year. One has the sense that every word had been carefully and repeatedly vetted. That the Chief would dedicate significant space to describing (even at a high level) the federal courts’ internal committee work is telling, and a welcome development for students of court organization.
Happy New Year to all.
For law geeks with small children, the highlight of every New Years Eve is the quiet posting of Chief Justice Roberts’s Year-End Report on the federal courts website. It is a predictably comfortable document that invariably begins with a 200-year-old anecdote, proceeds through a single chosen topic in 10th-grade detail, and ends with a brief recitation of court statistics. In other words, it’s a little like Dave Barry’s annual year-end column, if that column were written by John Roberts instead of Dave Barry.
This year the Chief Justice’s focus is on court preparedness in the face of terror and natural disaster — an appropriate enough topic in light of last year’s hurricane season. He also includes a short discussion of the courts’ forthcoming internal sexual harassment investigation.
Finally, some interesting statistical notes:
- The Supreme Court’s docket fell again, with a little under three percent fewer filings and only 61 signed opinions.
- Filings in the Courts of Appeal fell sixteen percent, but civil appeals were actually up one percent.
- Filings in the federal district courts fell eight percent, and bankruptcy filings fell two percent.
I will probably have more to say on these figures in subsequent posts. In the meantime, Happy New Year.