John Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, recently filed his 2022 “year-end report on the federal judiciary.” It’s more interesting for what it didn’t say than for what it did.
To underscore the threatening world that judges occupy, the chief justice began by focusing on a pivotal moment in the desegregation of the nation’s schools. The 1957 attempt by the Arkansas governor Orval Faubus to block Black students from entering Little Rock Central High School led to threats of violence against the federal judge who enforced the court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. That judge, Ronald N. Davies, was “uncowed,” the chief justice wrote, despite being “physically threatened.”
“A judicial system cannot and should not live in fear,” Chief Justice Roberts added as he thanked Congress for passing a law last year to protect judges. The new law was named in honor of Daniel Anderl, the son of Judge EstherSalas of the U.S. District Court of New Jersey, who was murdered in 2020 in an assault meant for the judge at her home. The law screens from the public the personal information of federal judges and their families, including identifiers such as license plate numbers and addresses. Leaders like the chief justice deserve praise when they highlight the dangers all public officials now face.
Focusing on the Brown decision was nonetheless surprising. After all, the court appears poised to reverse a decision upholding affirmative action in school admissions, one of the very remedies that the Brown decision spawned, and which all nine members of the court stood squarely behind in 1954 and reaffirmed in a subsequent case in 1958.
In past years, the chief justice sometimes used his year-end report to describe substantive reforms in the federal courts, like the task force created in 2018 in response to allegations that federal judges had harassed their staffs sexually and in other ways. Not so in his latest report, which was four pages long with a five-page appendix. Chief Justice Roberts did not mention any of the many issues that made the news about the court last year — the lack of an effective recusal requirement for justices whose actions or those of family members raise questions about impartiality, the leak of a draft of the court’s decision overturning abortion rights, the insufficiency of financial disclosure and questions about fund-raising for the Supreme Court Historical Society.
Nor did the chief justice explore the troubling data in his report’s appendix on “the workload of the courts.” The numbers document a sharp decline of the use of the federal courts. Federal appellate filings fell again in the fiscal year 2022, a steady decline from 49,000 in 2018 to fewer than 42,000 last year. Trial-level civil cases in the federal district courts have fallen precipitously as well — down from more almost 283,000 cases in 2018 to about 240,000 in 2022.
In calculating totals and the trend in civil cases, court administrators did not include about 321,000 filings that, starting in 2020, were brought by military service members and veterans who claimed that combat earplugs sold by 3M to the U.S. military were faulty. Under a federal statute, those cases became, in effect, one litigation, consolidated before trial in front of a single judge, and they are an example of the importance of people having access to courts, which can no longer be taken for granted.
The opinions of the very court that the chief justice leads provide insight into the decline. We know from our own experience that savvy civil rights lawyers now steer clear of federal court. Winning in the appellate courts risks having the Supreme Court’s conservative majority extinguish any gains won for women, prisoners, the environment and more.
The dwindling numbers of filings at the trial level in the U.S. District Courts also derive in part from what the Supreme Court has done during the last few decades — to close the courthouse doors to many would-be litigants, in class-action lawsuits and other cases.
A key example can be found in the court’s interpretations of the 1925 Federal Arbitration Act. In a series of cases that began in the 1980s, the court has read the statute to mean that employers and businesses can include arbitration clauses in lengthy, dense, fine-print documents with consumers and employees that bar access to courts and to class actions. Even complaints of violations of state and federal anti-discrimination statutes and of federal laws regulating securities, fair credit, unlawful mergers and unfair business practices can be forced into arbitration rather than being litigated in court. Anyone aggrieved has to go, one by one, to private arbitration. In practice, almost none do, because most people don’t have the resources to pursue small-value claims.
In contrast, the veterans in the combat earplug cases were able to get into court because no arbitration mandate kept them out. And once in court, because of procedures designed to make group-based litigation easier, they could combine resources to pursue their arguments of hearing loss and tinnitus.
The “state of the judiciary” address is a bully pulpit constructed decades ago by Chief Justice Warren Burger. Given the challenges the country faces, we need a chief justice who helps us all talk seriously about what ails the federal courts.
Chief Justice Roberts’s focus on 1950s desegregation litigation is a poignant reminder that once federal courts led the way in protecting civil rights and making courts accessible to all. His court, however, has made plain it has no interest in opening doors.
For that, we need Congress to reinvigorate federal rights and end the power of would-be defendants to control access. That’s what Congress did in 2022 when it amended the 1925 arbitration statute to let victims of sexual assault and harassment decide if they want to sue in court rather than consider using arbitration. The chief justice properly commended Congress for making strides in protecting federal judges. Now Congress needs to protect and support the right to bring cases to those judges.
Nancy Gertner, a retired Federal District Court judge, is a senior lecturer in law at Harvard Law School. Judith Resnik is a professor at Yale Law School.
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