Nothing says judicial status like…. a two-page discussion of the USS Constitution? That is how Chief Justice John Roberts began the 2012 annual Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. This report is the equivalent of the State of the Union address given by the President each year; a status update on how the federal court system is working and where the current Chief Justice is aiming to bring it over the next few years. Instead of delivering such a report, Chief Justice Roberts instead presented a document short on detail, long on hyperbole, which meandered and distracted from the topic at hand. The use of the report to discuss the USS Constitution, a fine warship and a symbol of pride for the United States, seems misplaced at best, an attempt to distract at worst. And it only went downhill from there.
The report, rather than discussing the cases as you would find in previous reports such as the 2004 report prepared by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, is solidly focused on finances, even when finances make no sense being there. While the courts upgrading methodologies to “Voiceover Internet Protocol” is a fascinating topic to be sure, it does not really belong in a yearly report of the federal court system. But, almost right away, the point of his report is clear, as he begins mentioning the federal court’s budgets, and more prominently, the pay for various workers, himself included. He goes to extreme lengths to describe his budgets with terms like “tiny” and “miniscule.” For instance, this is one of the issues he describes on page 9:
“The Judiciary has been doing its part to carefully manage its tiny portion of the federal budget. Because the Judiciary has already pursued cost-containment so aggressively, it will become increasingly difficult to economize further without reducing the quality of judicial services.”
In other words, “don’t cut our budget, we’re tiny, insignificant, ignore us.” But, with his call for salary increases for judicial workers, the discussion of budget frugality rings hollow. He cites that because their salaries haven’t been adjusted due to fiscal constraint in the federal budgets, federal court workers, himself included, were in effect living with a pay cut. The irony of this Bush appointee making this case, when his fellow Republicans are fighting to slash benefits, is noted. And yet, Roberts is otherwise mum on the stagnant minimum wage. Would those workers too be effectively operating under a pay cut, Chief Justice?
He dedicates a whole page to Hurricane Sandy and how the federal courts in New York continued to keep operating despite the disaster. He held it up as if it was something unique, when in fact it is common for federal courts to continue operating despite natural disasters. The workers of the federal court system are loyal, as are most government workers. This should not surprise anyone. After all, the post office continues to work despite the conditions of weather or finance.
One interesting angle Roberts did take, however, is when he brought up the backlog of replacement judges for the various federal courts. He called upon President Obama to nominate candidates who Congress would approve. With Congress in its current hyper-partisan state, this effectively is saying “nominate GOP judges or else.” Very poor judgement by a man who is supposed to be the “peoples’ judge.”
Chief Justice Roberts has led the most political court in modern history. Now he is trying to weasel his way out of the corner he’s painted the court into, but this plea by him is too little, too late. Perhaps he should have thought of it before ruling that corporations have unlimited speech. Decisions have consequences, and the decision by Chief Justice Roberts to support this position now has had dire consequences for the political process, which in turn is hurting his judicial process due to hyper-partisanship supported by unlimited campaign contributions by foreign corporations and governments.
The Chief Justice, in putting out this pleading, almost begging report, comes across more as the “orphan Oliver” begging for more food than a grown man; the head of a branch of government, doing his job. Chief Justice John Roberts failed to do his job, and now is sitting there dumbfounded as his world falls apart around him. If he had a single shred of decency, he would resign immediately.
Nathaniel Downes is the son of a former state representative of New Hampshire, now living in Seattle Washington.
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