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Chief Justice Roberts' Annual Report Focuses On COVID, Skips Trump And Controversy

In May, the Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments by teleconference for the first time because of the pandemic.
J. Scott Applewhite
In May, the Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments by teleconference for the first time because of the pandemic.

Chief Justice John Roberts Monday compared the often heroic efforts to keep the federal judiciary functioning this year to those employed by the nation's federal courts in 1790 and thereafter.

In his annual report on the federal judiciary, Roberts noted that the first Supreme Court justices had to conduct trials all over the country, even as an influenza outbreak was spreading. Chief Justice John Jay, upon arriving in Hartford, Conn., noted that "almost every family here is down with the influenza — some old people have died with it."

Three years later, Jay had to adjourn the court from sitting in Philadelphia due to a yellow fever epidemic that killed 5,000 of the city's 50,000 residents.

Prior to this year, when the high court postponed some oral arguments until later in the term, the last cancellation of a Supreme Court session came in 1918 during the Spanish Flu epidemic. But in our current pandemic, Roberts reported, "it has been all hands on deck" in an effort to keep the Supreme Court and the other federal courts running.

Court employees began working from home in March, and in May, the high court began hearing oral arguments by teleconference for the first time. Its weekly conference, in which the justices — with nobody else present — discuss and vote on argued cases, have also taken place by teleconference, giving the lie to some recent reports by right-wing activists that the justices could be heard shouting at each other through the door of the conference room.

Roberts reported that unlike the high court, the federal appeals courts, as well as some other federal courts, have implemented video oral arguments in order to keep up with their work. In some cases, he said, that has proved particularly challenging — for instance in bankruptcy cases where there may be as many as 100 lawyers who are participants.

The chief justice's biggest attaboy, however, went to the federal district courts, which he noted "faced the biggest challenge." Federal district court judges, among other things, preside over criminal and civil trials. They and their staffs handle the biggest caseload in the federal system, and are responsible for many other functions, from arraigning defendants to sentencing them, to allowing some of those behind bars to leave if they are eligible, because of the especially dangerous conditions in prison during the pandemic. As Roberts put it, these judges "have had to work out how to carry on their vital functions consistent with the best available public health guidance. "

The result was that most hearings went virtual, and case filings went electronic, while in some jurisdictions, district courts tried to hold trials by spreading out jurors in the largest courtrooms, erecting plexiglass between people, and trying other ways to ensure everyone's safety. What Roberts did not report is that in many places efforts at holding jury trials faltered amid new outbreaks of the pandemic.

That any trials took place "is a credit to judges and court staff, but also to the citizens who serve as jurors" Roberts said, noting that responses to jury summonses "have met with or exceeded" expectations.

Even naturalization ceremonies have continued, though in a different form. In Michigan and Florida, judges have held drive-though naturalizations, Roberts reported. And in Iowa and Minnesota, the ceremonies were moved outdoors, borrowing a practice from a century ago when San Francisco held outdoors proceedings during the Spanish flu epidemic.

With his usual blend of humor and history, Roberts noted that the nation's first chief justice, John Jay, convened the Supreme Court for its inaugural sitting 230 years ago, and the justices turned immediately to the assigning of the geographic area that each justice would be assigned to for purposes of presiding over federal trials.

Jay took the Eastern Circuit, covering his home state of New York, with assistance from another justice. Justices John Rutledge and James Iredell, who skipped the first session of court, were assigned to the Southern Circuit, which required 1,8oo miles of travel — "providing yet another lesson in what happens when you miss a meeting," the chief justice observed, with an almost perceivable grin.

Roberts' report focused entirely on the federal courts amid the pandemic. There was no mention of President Trump, his tweeted critical blasts about the justices, the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or any other controversies.

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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.