Unlike the president’s State of the Union message, which is required by Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution, the annual report on the state of the judiciary is a modern tradition. It was begun just 40 years ago by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and carried on with enthusiasm by Chief Justice Rehnquist, who often used it for significant pronouncements on judicial policy.
Chief Justice Roberts has had a rather problematic relationship to the tradition during his five years in office. The focus of his first report, on Dec. 31, 2005, was judicial pay. Noting that federal judges’ earning power had eroded by 24 percent since 1969, he said that Congress’s failure to raise judicial salaries presented a “direct threat to judicial independence.” While in my view he was completely right on the merits of the issue, some members of Congress resented what they viewed as hyperbole from the new chief justice, and the public responded with a shrug. The much-deserved pay raise has yet to happen.
Then last year, Chief Justice Roberts went minimalist, so much so that it left many people scratching their heads. Here was his report, in full, minus the statistical appendix:
Tony Mauro, a longtime observer of the court, responded on The Blog of Legal Times, “Imagine if the president, instead of giving a full State of the Union address, sent a note to Congress telling the legislative branch that life is good, all is O.K., and let’s catch up next year.”
Chief Justice Warren Burger began the tradition of a yearly report on the federal judiciary in 1970, in remarks he presented to the American Bar Association. He instituted that practice to discuss the problems that federal courts face in administering justice. In the past few years, I have adhered to the tradition that Chief Justice Burger initiated and have provided my perspective on the most critical needs of the judiciary. Many of those needs remain to be addressed. This year, however, when the political branches are faced with so many difficult issues, and when so many of our fellow citizens have been touched by hardship, the public might welcome a year-end report limited to what is essential: The courts are operating soundly, and the nation’s dedicated federal judges are conscientiously discharging their duties. I am privileged and honored to be in a position to thank the judges and court staff throughout the land for their devoted service to the cause of justice.
Best wishes in the New Year.
I’m willing to assume that last year’s baffling report was the result of judicial modesty rather than an idea deficit. In any event, I look forward to waking up on New Year’s Day to this headline or its reasonable equivalent: “Senate Imperils Judicial System, Roberts Says.”