Chief justice praises trial judges in year-end report; was it intended to counter Trump criticism?

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. praised federal trial judges on Saturday in his year-end report on the judiciary, saying the justice system “depends fundamentally on the skill, hard work, and dedication of those outside the limelight.”

According to the National Law Journal (sub. req.), Roberts’ report (PDF) “displayed no sharp edges or fodder for controversy.” Expressing a similar view, the Washington Post said Roberts “continued to steer well clear of controversy in the report.”

Roberts did not mention the Supreme Court vacancy left unfilled because of the Senate’s refusal to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland. Nor did he mention the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Instead, he focused on federal judges who display “special knowledge, sensitivity, and skill.”

“As the singular authority on the bench, he must respond to every detail of an unscripted proceeding, tempering firm and decisive judgment with objectivity, insight, and compassion,” Roberts said. “This is no job for impulsive, timid, or inattentive souls.”

Coverage by the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) notes that Roberts’ praise for trial judges followed a year in which Donald Trump criticized the federal judge overseeing two suits against Trump University. Trump said the judge, Gonzalo Curiel, was “a very hostile judge … who happens to be, we believe, Mexican.” (Curiel was born in Indiana.)

The Daily Caller links to Wall Street Journal story and cites it for the proposition that “some legal commentators are wondering if Robert was taking a veiled shot at the president-elect.”

Roberts also addressed caseloads and new civil procedure rules that encourage “extremely busy judges” to take a more active role in case management. Early intervention, Roberts said, “will pay dividends down the road. A lumberjack saves time when he takes the time to sharpen his ax.”

Civil case filings have increased 5 percent in the last year, while filings for criminal defendants decreased 3 percent, Roberts said. Cases with the United States as a defendant increased 55 percent because of a 2016 Supreme Court decision that gave some prisoners a new basis to challenge their sentences under the Armed Career Criminals Act. Federal appellate filings, meanwhile, increased 15 percent.

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