Amid election turmoil caused by Trump, Chief Justice Roberts lauds judiciary for pandemic response

Richard Wolf

WASHINGTON – Chief Justice John Roberts found a silver lining amid the wreckage of 2020 Thursday, using his annual report to heap praise on the federal judiciary's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In doing so, Roberts notably avoided any mention of the judiciary's other historic challenges and turmoil, caused in large part by President Donald Trump, his frequent nemesis.

There was no mention of impeachment, which ended with a Senate trial presided over by Roberts. The chief justice didn't recount the unprecedented rush to replace the late Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the eve of the presidential election, giving conservatives a 6-3 majority on the high court. 

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And there was no hint of the dozens of lawsuits Trump has engineered – and lost – in hopes of staying in the White House. The Supreme Court itself turned away two of them in December, with others still pending.

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It was typical of Roberts, the only leader of a branch of government who seeks to rise above politics and instead try, by his own standards at least, to do the right thing. It has earned him criticism from both right and left

Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts and Associate Justice Elena Kagan, right, pay their respects as the flag-draped casket of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg arrives at the Supreme Court on Sept. 23.

"Roberts rarely speaks publicly or releases public statements, but when he does, his words carry weight," said Gabe Roth, executive director of the watchdog group Fix the Court. "So I had hoped to read a strident defense of our constitutional system, with an implicit rebuke of those currently trying to undermine it."

The chief justice focused his brief end-of-year report, predictably, on the pandemic. But rather than reiterate the many problems it caused – the Supreme Court postponed its March and April oral arguments, and federal courts across the country were impacted – he emphasized the solutions judges and staffers found to keep the wheels of justice turning.

"By April, judges around the country were guiding critical court functions from their home offices – or their kitchen tables," Roberts marveled. "Hearings of all sorts went virtual. Judges quickly (or at least eventually) learned to use a wide range of available audio and video conferencing tools."

In trial courts across the land, Roberts noted, detained defendants and admitted participants were given access to virtual hearings. Jury boxes and other courtroom spaces were reconfigured, and responses to jury summonses have met or exceeded hopes. A state court judge conducted the nation’s first-ever remote jury trial.

And even as Trump has sought to limit immigration – going so far as to try excluding undocumented immigrants from the census count used to apportion seats in Congress – Roberts said judges in Michigan and Florida held drive-through naturalizations, while those in Iowa and Minnesota moved the ceremonies outdoors.

"This year, more than ever, I am privileged and honored to thank all of the judges, court staff, and other judicial branch personnel throughout the nation for their outstanding service," Roberts said.