WASHINGTON – National courts have responded with agility to the coronavirus pandemic, wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in his year-end report on the state of federal justice.
“Over the past 10 months,” he wrote, “everything has been put on deck for the courts, as our branch of government grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic.”
“The last national crisis came with the virulent epidemic of Spanish influenza in 1918, which led to the cancellation of the sessions of the Supreme Court,” he writes. “But for over a century, the courts have not had to respond to such a widespread public health emergency.”
It has been an eventful year for Chief Justice Roberts, which included presiding over President Trump’s impeachment trial, the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the arrival of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. The reconfigured court is a work in progress, but the addition of Judge Barrett will almost certainly diminish the power of the Chief Justice, as his vote is no longer crucial when judges are divided along ideological lines.
In response to the pandemic, the Supreme Court postponed arguments scheduled for March and April and embarked on a daring experiment in May, hearing arguments over the phone and letting the public listen, the first two. The court has now heard some 40 arguments in the new format. Despite the occasional glitch, including what certainly looked like a toilet with flushing, the procedure was orderly and dignified, even if at times stilted and inert.
Judges ask questions one at a time, in order of seniority, a stark contrast to the free-for-all that greeted the arguing lawyers in the courtroom. “We look like ‘Family Feud’,” Judge Thomas told a bar group, explaining why he very rarely asked questions from the bench. On the phone, however, Judge Thomas is an active participant.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the new format made the court function. “While we look forward to returning to normal sessions in our courtroom,” the Chief Justice wrote, “we were able to stay on top of our work.”
By some measures, however, the court’s workload is decreasing. An appendix to the chief justice’s report says the court issued just 53 signed opinions in cases debated during the period ending in July. This is the smallest number since the 1860s. The current term seems poised to convey an equally small number of opinions.
During the Spanish flu epidemic, which ended in 1918, the court ruled on 163 cases, more than three times as many as the current court.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the adjustments made by the Supreme Court and appellate courts were relatively minor. “The biggest challenge was faced by the ‘first to fight’ in the family of judges – the trial courts and their staff,” he wrote.
“In April, judges across the country were guiding the core functions of the courts from their headquarters – or kitchen tables,” he wrote. “Hearings of all kinds have become virtual. Judges quickly (or at least eventually) learned to use a wide variety of audio and video conferencing tools available. “
Jury trials have posed particular challenges, he wrote, calling them “the foundation of fairness in our justice system.” The jury boxes have been reconfigured, Plexiglas and air filters added and contact tracing plans deployed.
“Judges across the country are reporting that where jury trials have resumed, responses to jury summons have met or exceeded their high hopes for the public’s willingness to participate in the justice system in these very difficult times,” wrote the chief justice.
The courts have also been creative in other ways, he wrote.
“District judges have the privilege of performing naturalization ceremonies and welcoming new citizens,” he wrote. “But the coronavirus has made it difficult to conduct traditional ceremonies at the courthouse safely. The judges in Michigan and Florida therefore carried out naturalizations while driving. Others, in Iowa and Minnesota, have moved the ceremonies outside. They were borrowing a practice from a century ago, when San Francisco courts held proceedings outside during the Spanish flu pandemic.