U.S. Supreme Court

Chief Justice Roberts praises Merrick Garland in report with 'timely subtext'

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Merrick Garland

Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. praised failed Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland for his volunteer work last Tuesday in his 2019 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary.

Roberts didn’t refer to Garland by name in his report, which promoted the value of civic education, report the New York Times and the Washington Post. But Roberts pointed to Garland’s work when he praised efforts by judges to help raise civics knowledge.

“As just one example,” Roberts wrote, “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. I am confident that many other federal judges, without fanfare or acclaim, are playing similar selfless roles throughout the country.”

Media coverage of the report notes that Roberts will preside in President Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial. According to the Washington Post, Roberts appeared to allude to his upcoming role when he spoke of the need “to judge without fear or favor, deciding each matter with humility, integrity and dispatch.”

“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 said.

The New York Times saw “a timely subtext” in the report and said it appeared to be at least partly addressed to Trump. Roberts clashed with Trump in November 2018 when Trump referred to an “Obama judge.” Roberts followed with a statement that said, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges.” Instead, Roberts said, the judiciary had “an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”

In the report, Roberts said the nation “should celebrate our strong and independent judiciary, a key source of national unity and stability.”

Roberts’ report began with a reference to John Jay, an author of the Federalist Papers who later became the first chief justice of the Supreme Court. Jay was injured by a rock thrown by a rioter in 1788 when Jay was defending the city jail from a mob that was motivated by a rumor. Roberts wrote that Jay and the other authors of the Federalist Papers ultimately succeeded in convincing the public of the virtues of principles embodied in the Constitution.

“But in the ensuing years, we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside,” Roberts wrote. “In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital. The judiciary has an important role to play in civic education, and I am pleased to report that the judges and staff of our federal courts are taking up the challenge.”

The Washington Post points out that Roberts did not mention one way that the Supreme Court could provide outreach to the public: by televising or livestreaming audio of oral arguments. The Supreme Court was dead last in November on a transparency scale developed for federal appellate-level courts by Fix the Court, a national nonpartisan organization based in New York City.

The group did give the Supreme Court credit for quickly releasing its opinions. Roberts noted that online posting of opinions by the federal courts gives the public “instant access to the reasoning behind the judgments that affect their lives.”

Roberts referred to the communications value of the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling Brown v. Board of Education. The Washington Post points out that several Trump judicial nominees have refused to answer questions about their views on whether the 1954 decision was properly decided because they feared they would also be questioned about Roe v. Wade or other decisions. Roberts praised the desegregation ruling at his confirmation hearing.

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