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Fair Courts E-Lert: Chief Justice Roberts Releases 2019 Year-End Report on Federal Judiciary

This Fair Courts E-Lert highlights Chief Justice Roberts’s year-end report on the federal judiciary, a new Brennan Center analysis of legislative assaults on state courts in 2019, and more.

Published: January 10, 2020


Federal Courts

Chief Justice Roberts Releases 2019 Year-End Report on Federal Judiciary

On December 31, 2019, Chief Justice John Roberts released his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary, the focus of which was the importance of civic education. The report also “seemed to continue a conversation with Mr. Trump about the role of the courts,” according to The New York Times.

In the report, Roberts began with a discussion of “America’s greatest civil lesson,” remarking that the authors of the Federalist Papers “ultimately succeeded in convincing the public of the virtues of the principles embodied in the Constitution.” But in the ensuing years,” the chief justice wrote, “we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside.”

Roberts goes on to say that the judiciary “has an important role to play in civic education,” and describes the ways in which federal judges and court staff have taken up that challenge: posting decisions online so the public can read them, producing curriculum materials for students, hosting live events, creating online resources for the general public, and engaging with their communities as volunteers.

Roberts concluded the report with a message to his judicial colleagues, asking that they “continue their efforts to promote public confidence in the judiciary, both through their rulings and through civic outreach. We should celebrate our strong and independent judiciary, a key source of national unity and stability.”

Senate Confirms 13 More Trump Nominees Before Year Ends as House Debates Impeachment

Last month, the Republican-controlled Senate confirmed 13 more Trump-nominated judges as the House voted to impeach the president before finishing up its work for 2019. “The back-to-back days of nomination votes brings the total number of Trump court picks confirmed by the Senate to 187, including two Supreme Court nominees,” according to The Hill.

“In less than three years, President Trump has done nearly as much to shape the courts as President Obama did in eight years”, according to Vox. The article goes on to say that since taking office, Trump has named 48 court of appeals judges and 112 district court judges, whereas Obama only appointed 55 court of appeals judges and 268 district court judges during his entire presidency.

Vox reports that Trump has been able to appoint so many federal judges for two reasons: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked many of Obama’s lower court nominees and Senator Patrick Leahy (VT), who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee for most of Obama’s presidency, “took an unusually expansive view of the rights of the minority party” by allowing a single senator of either party to block any nominees from their home state.

State Courts

New Brennan Center Analysis Shows Continued Legislative Assaults on State Courts in 2019

In 2019, legislators in at least 25 states considered at least 48 bills that would have diminished the role or independence of state courts by giving political actors more control over judicial selection, judicial decision-making or judicial administration, according to a new Brennan Center analysis.

While lawmakers have employed similar tactics in the past, a new pattern that emerged in 2019 was partisan elected officials seeking more power to decide which judges hear cases challenging their actions. Many of last year’s bills also sought to give the legislature or governor more power over how judges are selected; others would have given the legislature power to override or refuse to enforce court decisions; still others would have generally restricted courts’ jurisdiction and power.

As the year came to an end, legislators continued to introduce anti-court legislation for 2020. In Ohio, lawmakers introduced a bill that would allow judicial candidates to list their party affiliation on general election ballots. Currently, judges in Ohio face partisan primaries and nonpartisan general elections. Republican Rep. Steven Hambley defended the bill, saying, “[v]ery clearly we have partisan involvement in all elections.”

Three Nominees Selected for Seat on Iowa Supreme Court Following the Passing of Chief Justice

On January 9, the Iowa Judicial Nominating Commission selected three nominees to fill the vacancy on the state’s high court created by the unexpected death of former Chief Justice Mark Cady. The 17-member commission interviewed twelve candidates for the seat – six men and six women – which included former judges, an assistant Iowa attorney general, an assistant appellate defender, and a Des Moines lawyer. The interviews are available on the Iowa Courts YouTube page here.

The three candidates selected by the commission have been forwarded to Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who now has 30 days to appoint the new justice. As reported by the Des Moines Register, this appointment will be Reynolds’ third to the state’s highest court since taking office. It will also be Reynolds’ first judicial appointment since signing a new law giving the governor a majority on the state’s nominating commission.

Chief Justice Cady served on the Iowa Supreme Court for 21 years and “had been a key swing vote on the court in recent years, as Republicans took control of the Legislature and governor’s office and passed new laws aimed at expanding gun rights, restricting abortion and barring gay marriage,” according to the AP. He wrote the opinion in Varnum v. Brien, a landmark case which legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa in 2009.