Chief Justice John Roberts released his year-end report on the federal judiciary tonight. In 2016, Roberts used the report to pay homage to what he regarded as the unsung hero of the federal judiciary: the federal district judge, whom he described as a “capable administrator” but also an “active and astute problem solver.” Roberts’ 2017 report was more directly reflective of current events, focusing on the federal judiciary’s response to natural disasters – such as hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands – and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Roberts began by acknowledging that disaster response efforts are “primarily the responsibility of the executive and legislative branches.” Although courts “cannot provide food, shelter, or medical aid,” he observed, “they must stand ready to perform their judicial functions as part of the recovery effort.” Roberts described the response of the federal judiciary to 2017’s natural disasters in some detail. He praised the “dedicated and even heroic” actions of judges and court employees, remarking that when the chief probation officer in Puerto Rico arrived at work shortly after Hurricane Maria had passed through, “he discovered 25 members of the District’s probation staff already at the office, raring to go.” And Roberts outlined some of the lessons that the judiciary had learned from this year’s catastrophes, such as the need to “pre-position essential equipment, such as satellite telephones, batteries, generators, and emergency supplies on islands and other areas susceptible to hurricanes and flooding.”
Roberts then turned to a “new challenge in the coming year”: the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. He noted that “events in the past few weeks” – allegations against Alex Kozinski, a high-profile judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, who retired earlier this month – “have made clear that the judicial branch is not immune” from the problem. Roberts announced that he had asked the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the agency that supports the federal judiciary, to form a working group “to examine our practices and address these issues.” Among other things, Roberts wrote, the group should “consider whether changes are needed in our codes of conduct, our guidance to employees – including law clerks – on issues of confidentiality and reporting of instances of misconduct, our educational programs, and our rules for investigating and processing misconduct complaints.”