In his annual report on the state of the federal judiciary, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. today called on the "political branches" -- the President and Congress -- to find a long-term solution to the "persistent problem" of filling judicial vacancies.
"Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes," Roberts wrote in the report, released to the public at 6 p.m. Since Republicans are the ones doing the defending and the blocking in the current Senate, the comment puts the conservative Roberts in unusual alignment with Senate Democrats who have criticized Republicans for impeding confirmations.
Roberts said he was "heartened" by a flurry of confirmations in the final days of the Senate session last week, which we reported here. Overall, the Senate confirmed 60 appeals and district court judicial nominees in the 111th Congress, leaving 19 nominees without a yes-or-no vote. Roberts said the vacancies have created "acute difficulties" and "extraordinary caseloads" in some judicial districts. He singled out the Eastern District of California for mention as a court that has been hampered by vacancies.
In a more conciliatory vein, Roberts also highlighted the judiciary's cooperation with Congress in finding ways to rein in spending. "The judiciary has worked closely with Congress in exercising self-imposed fiscal discipline, and Congress in turn has stood ready to provide funding for the judiciary's vital needs," Roberts wrote, pledging continuing efforts to control spending. He said the judiciary has worked with the General Services Administration to reduce rental rates for office space, and has reassessed its office space and personnel needs.
"The Supreme Court itself is doing its part," Roberts reported, adding that because of cuts, its 2012 budget request will be smaller than 2011's. "Not many federal government entities can say that."
Unlike some of his past annual reports, Roberts this year was silent on a subject near and dear to the hearts of his robed colleagues at all levels of the judiciary: salary increases. Since the recession took hold, the Judicial Conference has all but abandoned hope of winning a significant pay raise for judges from Congress anytime soon.
Roberts also gave a shout-out to a committee of the Judicial Conference headed by Judge Charles Breyer of the Northern District of California for its recently issued report offering a "strategic plan" for the future of the federal judiciary. The report stated principles and goals to foster the courts' basic mission of providing "fair and impartial resolution of legal disputes," as Roberts put it. The plan focused on internal management of the courts, insuring litigants with "reasonable and economical access" to the judicial process, as well as external goals of fostering good relations with the other branches of government and "enhancing the public's understanding of the role of the courts." Breyer is the brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
Looking to the past as well as the future, Roberts also noted that the Supreme Court in 2010 marked the 75th anniversary of the opening of its current home, "a majestic building" that stands as a "familiar and iconic monument to the rule of law." Roberts wrote, "The architect's use of classical elements and durable stone has aptly captured the Court's imperishable role in our system of government."
The Court and the national judicial system, Roberts said, "are the model for justice throughout the world. But that is no reason for complacency. As the world moves forward, the courts must be responsive to change, while preserving their place as the venue where justice is achieved through impartial judgment and dispassionate application of law."