Jan 1, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Chief justice pushes back on outside efforts to reform courts

Chief Justice John G. Roberts
Chief Justice John Roberts. Photo: Michael Reynolds

Chief Justice John Roberts made his case for judicial independence in his annual year-end report as the Supreme Court enters the second half of one of its most consequential terms to date, weighing in on whether to overturn Roe v. Wade and uphold federal rules to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Why it matters: It's an opportune time for the chief justice to make his case as Gallup polling from December shows Roberts leading all other federal officials in approval among a cross-section of Americans.

  • Roberts received a 60% approval rating, the only leader to receive bipartisan majority support, with 55% of Democrats and 57% of Republicans saying they approved of his handling of his job.

Yes, but: A separate poll conducted in September showed the approval rating of the court as a whole had dipped to a new low. 

State of play: Roberts' year-end remarks come as some Democrats continue to call for increasing the Supreme Court's membership.

  • Last month, a bipartisan commission created by the Biden administration, released its long-awaited final report, which found “considerable, bipartisan support” for implementing non-renewable 18-year term limits for the justices and “profound disagreement” about whether lawmakers should attempt to expand the bench.

Flashback: Roberts and former President Trump clashed about the independence of the federal judiciary back in 2018 after the president criticized judges who ruled against his administration, calling them "Obama judges."

The other side: As Axios' Sam Baker noted back in 2020, the court’s abortion docket, in particular, demonstrates why liberals aren't easily swayed by the chief justice's oft-repeated pleas for procedural moderation.

What he's saying: “The judiciary’s power to manage its internal affairs insulates courts from inappropriate political influence and is crucial to preserving public trust in its work as a separate and coequal branch of government,” Roberts wrote in the report.

  • Roberts also referenced William Howard Taft, who served as Chief Justice of the United States after his presidency.
  • "He understood that criticism of the courts is inevitable, and he lived through an era when federal courts faced strident calls for reform, some warranted and some not," the current chief justice wrote.

Roberts addressed a Wall Street Journal analysis, which ran in September and revealed 131 federal judges unlawfully failed to disqualify themselves in 685 cases from 2010 to 2018.

  • "Let me be crystal clear," Roberts wrote, "the Judiciary takes this matter seriously."
  • Though he pointed out that the cases cited represented “less than three hundredths of one percent of the 2.5 million civil cases filed in the district courts,” the chief justice said suggested more training as well as modernizing technological systems to improve compliance.
  • What to watch: The justices on Friday will hold oral arguments to consider legal challenges to President Biden's COVID-19 vaccine mandates for health care workers and large companies.
  • The mandates have faced a series of lawsuits from Republican-led states, businesses and religious coalitions.

Go deeper: John Roberts' long game

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