Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi / The NLJ)

U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. on Saturday spotlighted the “crucial role” played by federal district judges, asserting they “deserve tremendous respect” for performing the often thankless tasks of the job.

“The district judge serves as the calm central presence to ensure fair process and justice for the litigants,” Roberts wrote in his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary.

In past years, Roberts has sometimes used the annual platform to advocate for higher pay for judges, or to defend the ethics of his fellow justices. But his 2016 report displayed no sharp edges or fodder for controversy. Roberts did not mention the death of Antonin Scalia or nod to the pending nomination of Merrick Garland to fill that seat.

Instead, Roberts’s report focused on the more 637 authorized district judgeships and the more than 500 senior judges who help handle the caseload.

“This is no job for impulsive, timid or inattentive souls,” Roberts wrote, noting that “as the singular authority on the bench,” district judges “must respond to every detail of an unscripted proceeding, tempering firm and decisive judgment with objectivity, insight, and compassion.”

As he often does, Roberts started his report with a historical reference—this time telling the story of David Sewall, a Massachusetts state judge who learned, by mail, that President George Washington had appointed him as the federal district judge for the district of Maine.

The appointment was “unsolicited and unexpected,” Sewall wrote, but he accepted it. He worried that in the new appointment, “the judge is to stand alone, and unassisted.”

Roberts observed that 237 years later, federal district court judges still stand alone.

“Unlike politicians, they work largely outside of the public eye,” Roberts wrote. “Most Americans have some sense of their role, but that perception has surely been shaped, for better and worse, by movie and television portrayals of the American jury trial.”

In last year’s report, Roberts reported on a series of changes to the federal rules of civil procedure, some of which were aimed at streamlining civil litigation and involving judges earlier in the process to improve case management and discovery. An early meeting between the parties and the judge, he said last year, “can often obviate the need for a formal motion—a well-timed scowl from a trial judge can go a long way in moving things along crisply.”

In the 2016 report issued Saturday, Roberts said “the reforms are beginning to have a positive effect because already extremely busy judges are willing to undertake more active engagement in managing their dockets, which will pay dividends down the road. A lumberjack saves time when he takes the time to sharpen his ax.” Roberts added: “This year, we will take a step further and ask district judges to participate in pilot programs to test several promising case management techniques aimed at reducing the costs of discovery.”

The annual report also includes statistics on the workload of federal courts. Civil filings in district courts increased to 291,851 in the 12 months that ended September 30—five percent more than last year.

Cases where the United States is the defendant increased 55 percent, Roberts said. The Supreme Court’s April decision in Welch v. United States gave some prisoners new grounds to challenge their sentences in cases involving the Armed Career Criminal Act.

Federal appeals courts also experienced an increase in filings, rising 15 percent to 60,537. Bankruptcy court filings decreased six percent to 805,580. Fewer petitions, Roberts said, were filed in 71 of the 90 bankruptcy courts.

As for the Supreme Court, Roberts reported the number of new cases decreased by nearly eight percent to 6,475. In forma pauperis or unpaid cases were also down.

The court issued 62 signed opinions last term, down from 66 the term before. Twelve cases were decided by unsigned or per curiam opinions last term. Roberts did not offer explanations for the decreases, but the death of Scalia in February may have had an impact on the court’s workload.

U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. on Saturday spotlighted the “crucial role” played by federal district judges, asserting they “deserve tremendous respect” for performing the often thankless tasks of the job.

“The district judge serves as the calm central presence to ensure fair process and justice for the litigants,” Roberts wrote in his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary.

In past years, Roberts has sometimes used the annual platform to advocate for higher pay for judges, or to defend the ethics of his fellow justices. But his 2016 report displayed no sharp edges or fodder for controversy. Roberts did not mention the death of Antonin Scalia or nod to the pending nomination of Merrick Garland to fill that seat.

Instead, Roberts’s report focused on the more 637 authorized district judgeships and the more than 500 senior judges who help handle the caseload.

“This is no job for impulsive, timid or inattentive souls,” Roberts wrote, noting that “as the singular authority on the bench,” district judges “must respond to every detail of an unscripted proceeding, tempering firm and decisive judgment with objectivity, insight, and compassion.”

As he often does, Roberts started his report with a historical reference—this time telling the story of David Sewall, a Massachusetts state judge who learned, by mail, that President George Washington had appointed him as the federal district judge for the district of Maine.

The appointment was “unsolicited and unexpected,” Sewall wrote, but he accepted it. He worried that in the new appointment, “the judge is to stand alone, and unassisted.”

Roberts observed that 237 years later, federal district court judges still stand alone.

“Unlike politicians, they work largely outside of the public eye,” Roberts wrote. “Most Americans have some sense of their role, but that perception has surely been shaped, for better and worse, by movie and television portrayals of the American jury trial.”

In last year’s report, Roberts reported on a series of changes to the federal rules of civil procedure, some of which were aimed at streamlining civil litigation and involving judges earlier in the process to improve case management and discovery. An early meeting between the parties and the judge, he said last year, “can often obviate the need for a formal motion—a well-timed scowl from a trial judge can go a long way in moving things along crisply.”

In the 2016 report issued Saturday, Roberts said “the reforms are beginning to have a positive effect because already extremely busy judges are willing to undertake more active engagement in managing their dockets, which will pay dividends down the road. A lumberjack saves time when he takes the time to sharpen his ax.” Roberts added: “This year, we will take a step further and ask district judges to participate in pilot programs to test several promising case management techniques aimed at reducing the costs of discovery.”

The annual report also includes statistics on the workload of federal courts. Civil filings in district courts increased to 291,851 in the 12 months that ended September 30—five percent more than last year.

Cases where the United States is the defendant increased 55 percent, Roberts said. The Supreme Court’s April decision in Welch v. United States gave some prisoners new grounds to challenge their sentences in cases involving the Armed Career Criminal Act.

Federal appeals courts also experienced an increase in filings, rising 15 percent to 60,537. Bankruptcy court filings decreased six percent to 805,580. Fewer petitions, Roberts said, were filed in 71 of the 90 bankruptcy courts.

As for the Supreme Court, Roberts reported the number of new cases decreased by nearly eight percent to 6,475. In forma pauperis or unpaid cases were also down.

The court issued 62 signed opinions last term, down from 66 the term before. Twelve cases were decided by unsigned or per curiam opinions last term. Roberts did not offer explanations for the decreases, but the death of Scalia in February may have had an impact on the court’s workload.