WASHINGTON — The nation’s courts have reacted nimbly to the coronavirus pandemic, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in his year-end report on the state of the federal judiciary.
“For the previous 10 months,” he wrote, “it has been all arms on deck for the courts, as our department of presidency confronted the Covid-19 pandemic.”
“The final nationwide disaster got here with the virulent outbreak of the Spanish flu in 1918, which led to cancellation of Supreme Courtroom periods,” he wrote. “However for greater than a century, the courts haven’t had to answer such a widespread public well being emergency.”
It was an eventful 12 months for Chief Justice Roberts, one which included presiding over the impeachment trial of President Trump, the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the arrival of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. The reconfigured court docket is a piece in progress, however the addition of Justice Barrett will nearly actually diminish the chief justice’s power, as his vote is now not essential when the justices are divided alongside ideological traces.
In response to the pandemic, the Supreme Courtroom postponed arguments that had been scheduled for March and April, and in Might it embarked on a bold experiment, listening to arguments by telephone and letting the general public hear in, each firsts. The court docket has now heard some 40 arguments within the new format. However the occasional glitch, together with what actually appeared like a flushing toilet, the proceedings had been orderly and dignified if at occasions stilted and inert.
The justices ask questions one after the other, so as of seniority, a stark distinction to the free-for-all that had greeted attorneys arguing within the courtroom. “We appear to be ‘Household Feud,’” Justice Thomas as soon as advised a bar group, explaining why he very seldom requested questions from the bench. On the cellphone, although, Justice Thomas is an lively participant.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the brand new format allowed the court docket to perform. “Though we look ahead to returning to regular sittings in our courtroom,” the chief justice wrote, “now we have been capable of keep present in our work.”
By some measures, although, the court docket’s workload is dropping. An appendix to the chief justice’s report stated the court docket issued solely 53 signed opinions in argued circumstances within the time period that resulted in July. That’s the smallest quantity because the 1860s. The present time period appears poised to yield a equally small variety of opinions.
Throughout the Spanish flu epidemic, within the time period that began in 1918, the court docket determined 163 circumstances, or greater than thrice as many as the present court docket.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the changes made by the Supreme Courtroom and appeals courts had been comparatively minor. “The best problem was confronted by the ‘first to struggle’ within the judicial household — the trial courts and their staffs,” he wrote.
“By April, judges across the nation had been guiding vital court docket capabilities from their residence places of work — or their kitchen tables,” he wrote. “Hearings of all kinds went digital. Judges rapidly (or not less than ultimately) discovered to make use of a variety of obtainable audio and video conferencing instruments.”
Jury trials posed particular challenges, he wrote, calling them “the bedrock of equity in our system of justice.” Jury containers have been reconfigured, plexiglass and air filters added and speak to tracing plans deployed.
“Judges from across the nation report that, the place jury trials have resumed, responses to jury summonses have met or exceeded their excessive hopes for the general public’s willingness to take part within the authorized system throughout these very difficult occasions,” the chief justice wrote.
Courts have been artistic in different methods, too, he wrote.
“District judges are privileged to carry out naturalization ceremonies and welcome new residents,” he wrote. “However the coronavirus has made it troublesome to conduct conventional courthouse ceremonies safely. So judges in Michigan and Florida held drive-through naturalizations. Others, in Iowa and Minnesota, moved the ceremonies open air. They had been borrowing a apply from a century in the past, when San Francisco courts held proceedings open air in the course of the Spanish flu pandemic.”