On December 31, Chief Justice John Roberts published his year-end report on the federal judiciary. As is tradition, the report was a short, perfunctory memo that came and went without any lasting impact. By comparison to the State of the Union—during which the president lays out his agenda for the coming year—the court’s year-end report strives to stay away from controversy or newsworthiness. Instead, it stays in the safe space of hokey themes wrapped in neat historical anecdotes. It’s best to think of it as Roberts’s yearly self-portrait.
I always read it, because, like a self-portrait, it provides insights into how the artist sees themself. Last year, the Supreme Court revoked a constitutional right for the first time in US history when it overturned Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. I was curious about how Roberts would portray himself and his court after this widely unpopular betrayal of judicial precedent. His year-end report provides the answer: Roberts thinks he and his cabal of conservative extremists are heroes.
The report didn’t address abortion directly, of course. Instead, Roberts opens with a story about the Brown v. Board of Education decision as told through the actions of a district court judge, Ronald N. Davies, who applied the decision in 1957 when nine Black teenagers (known as the “Little Rock Nine”) attempted to integrate a high school in Arkansas. Roberts tells us about the political pressure put on Davies and the threats of violence made against him should he rule in favor of integration. But Davies bravely held his ground and followed the law.
First of all, telling a story about the civil rights movement through the lens of a white judge is a hell of a choice. But, as we saw with Roberts’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, it’s not unusual for him to understand the law from the perspective of the white people who make the rules, instead of the Black people who demand justice.
More important, it would be foolish to think that Roberts brought up the history of desegregation by coincidence. Conservatives have long made the argument that overruling Roe v. Wade is the kind of bold revocation of precedent that aligns with the court’s decision to overturn the segregationist ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. No matter that Brown restored constitutional rights secured for Black people under the 14th Amendment, while Dobbs revoked a constitutional protection given to women and pregnant people. In the conservative mind, Brown and Dobbs are linked, and in both cases, unelected, unaccountable judges are the heroes for standing tall against the popular will.
Having set the stage with this narrative, Roberts pivots to the theme of this year’s report, judicial security—which is to say, the safety of the country’s judges. He highlights the Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act, which was passed in response to the horrible attack on District Judge Esther Salas, in which a gunman went to her home and killed her son, Daniel Anderl. This law prohibits the sale of judges’ personal information by data brokers and allows judges to redact such information from federal websites.
It’s a good law, but an observant reader could well see the Dobbs decision lurking in the background—again. There were significant protests following the Dobbs ruling, including demonstrations outside the homes of both Roberts and alleged attempted rapist Brett Kavanaugh. While Congress couldn’t be bothered to pass a bill restoring the rights the Supreme Court stripped away, it did act quickly to throw more security the justices’ way. And since then, there have been calls to further “protect” the justices by making their financial dealings (and those of their spouses) even less transparent, a move that seems designed more to hide the flow of money to the justices, and their dealings with potential influencers, than to protect their physical safety.
For his part, Roberts appears to support these measures to further insulate the justices from the people they rule over. He closes with: “A judicial system cannot and should not live in fear. The events of Little Rock teach about the importance of rule by law instead of by mob.”
Spare me. If we read Roberts as taking a not-so-veiled swipe at the Dobbs protesters, then this just feels wrong. It feels wrong to reduce the 61 percent of Americans who think that abortion should be legal, or the 56 percent of Americans who believe the Supreme Court got it wrong in Dobbs, to the “mob.” Roberts’s is the kind of cloistered and elitist way of thinking that comes from a lifetime appointment and a commitment to minority rule.
Moreover, as so often happens when he retells American history, Roberts gets the core lesson of the Little Rock Nine wrong. Their story is not one about the triumph of the rule of law; it’s a story about how useless the law and the courts really are without the might of the military propping them up. Little Rock was not integrated because Judge Davies stood his ground; Little Rock was integrated because President Dwight D. Eisenhower stood his ground and sent men with guns to Arkansas to enforce the court’s ruling.
The great irony of Roberts’s parable about the heroic dedication of federal judges, then, is that it offers precisely the opposite lesson: It shows how powerless judges are when they are not perceived as legitimate by the other branches of government or by the people themselves. And it’s that very legitimacy that Roberts and his conservative friends have traded away in their extremist rush to unmake the progress of the 20th century. The Roberts court is one that ignores precedent and makes up facts to suit its agenda, and regularly grants special access to lobbyists and religious fundamentalists looking to push their agendas through the court. The Roberts-led judicial system does not live in fear. It lives in the muck.
This year, Roberts portrayed himself standing athwart history, yelling “stop”—while completely naked. Most people won’t notice, and most of those who do won’t tell him, because at this point Roberts and his merry band of archconservative wizards seem allergic to the truth.