In his end of year letter, Chief Justice John Roberts has directly addressed what may be the defining Constitutional issue of our time—whether brute force will govern instead of the law (and by extension: whether the federal courts will remain independent of politics and so able to uphold the principles of the Constitution and the universal rights it protects).
The Chief Justice notes the that the first to hold his post, John Jay, was sidelined from his role as one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers, by a rash of mob violence. He writes:
It is sadly ironic that John Jay’s efforts to educate his fellow citizens about the Fram ers’ plan of government fell victim to a rock thrown by a rioter motivated by a rumor. Happily, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay ulti- mately succeeded in convincing the public of the virtues of the principles embodied in the Constitution. Those principles leave no place for mob violence.
He goes on to warn, starkly:
But in the ensuing years, we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside. In our age, when socialmedia can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to under stand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital. The judiciary has an importantrole to play in civic education, and I am pleased to report that the judges and staff of our federal courts are taking up the challenge.
In his report, he notes the efforts of federal courts, national institutions, and his fellow Supreme Court justices, to provide that ongoing civic education. He not only celebrates this work, but calls for a renewal of purpose, both in the work of judging cases before the courts and in providing clarity to the public about the law. He closes with this call to action:
I ask my judicial colleagues to continue their efforts to promote public confidence in the judiciary , both through their rulings and through civic outreach. We should celebrate our strong and independent judiciary, a key source of national unity and stability. But we should also remember that justice is not inevitable. We should reflect on our duty to judge without fear or favor, deciding each matter with humility, integrity, and dispatch. As the New Year begins, and we turn to the tasks be fore us, we should each resolve to do our best to maintain the public’s trust that we are faithfully discharging our solemn obligation to equal justice under law.
Numerous observers have noted the timing. This letter comes just before Chief Justice Roberts will take up a new place in history, as presiding judge in the impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump, before the United States Senate. There is speculation that he is speaking not only to the federal judiciary, but to the Senate, which will temporarily take up a judicial role. In that role, each Senator must be sworn in, under an oath committing them to impartiality and to upholding the Constitution of the United States.
Article III of the Constitution states that federal judges can serve only “during good Behaviour”. There is in the language of the Constitution, and in the fact of the Chief Justice’s presiding role in the Senate trial, an implied remedy for any Senator violating that oath—a requirement of recusal, which the Chief Justice might enforce.
The Chief Justice does not comment on the controversy of the impeachment process, and that is, for the moment, right. Instead, he focuses his attention on the need for honorable service, independent judgment, and affirms that:
Each generation has an obligation to pass on to the next, not only a fully functioning government responsive to the needs of the people, but the tools to understand and improve it.
As we enter the year 2020, and what will be the 24th full decade in the history of republican democracy in the United States, we should be thankful for all public servants who seek to honor their oath and their conscience above faction or profit, and commit our political lives to the idea that “Here, right matters.”