The nation’s courts have reacted nimbly to the coronavirus pandemic, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in his year-end report on the state of the federal judiciary.
“For the past 10 months,” he wrote, “it has been all hands on deck for the courts, as our branch of government confronted the Covid-19 pandemic.”
“The last nationwide crisis came with the virulent outbreak of the Spanish flu in 1918, which led to cancellation of Supreme Court sessions,” he wrote. “But for more than a century, the courts have not had to respond to such a widespread public health emergency.”
It was an eventful year for Chief Justice Roberts, one that included presiding over the impeachment trial of President Trump, the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the arrival of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. The reconfigured court is a work in progress, but the addition of Justice Barrett will almost certainly diminish the chief justice’s power, as his vote is now no longer crucial when the justices are divided along ideological lines.
In reaction to the pandemic, the Supreme Court postponed arguments that had been scheduled for March and April, and in May it embarked on a bold experiment, hearing arguments by telephone and letting the public listen in, both firsts. The court has now heard some 40 arguments in the new format. Notwithstanding the occasional glitch, the proceedings were orderly and dignified if at times stilted and inert.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the new format allowed the court to function. “Although we look forward to returning to normal sittings in our courtroom,” the chief justice wrote, “we have been able to stay current in our work.”
By some measures, though, the court’s workload is dropping. An appendix to the chief justice’s report said the court issued only 53 signed opinions in argued cases in the term that ended in July. That is the smallest number since the 1860s. The current term seems poised to yield a similarly small number of opinions.
During the Spanish flu epidemic, in the term that started in 1918, the court decided 163 cases, or more than three times as many as the current court.