Supreme Court Chief Justice Warns of Internet Disinformation in Year-End Report

January 1, 2020 Updated: January 1, 2020

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts—who may soon be presiding over President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial—said in his year-end report that people should be aware of disinformation on the Internet spread through social media.

Roberts recounted the story of John Jay, one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers, getting injured during the Doctors’ Riot in 1788 after an angry mob gathered, riled up by a rumor that students at a hospital were dissecting a child’s recently deceased mother.

A rioter struck Jay, who was helping to quell the riot, in the head with a rock, leading to him being by far the least productive contributor to the papers.

“In the ensuing years, we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside. In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital,” Roberts wrote (pdf).

Special Counsel Robert Mueller was tasked with probing Russian interference in the 2016 election and found that Russia circulated propaganda online and hacked the Democratic National Committee in attempts to sway the outcome of the election. Mueller also found no evidence that either Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia.

“The judiciary has an important role to play in civic education, and I am pleased to report that the judges and staff of our federal courts are taking up the challenge,” Roberts added.

Roberts said that judges’ written opinions help “advance public understanding of the law” and cheered the fact that federal court opinions are easily available online. He also noted that the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has developed educational products, including online programs that advance knowledge of the law, and highlighted efforts by various courts in civic education.

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The American Peace Commissioners negotiating the Peace of Paris at the end of the American Revolutionary War, circa 1782: (L-R) John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and Franklin’s grandson William Temple Franklin. From an unfinished painting by Benjamin West. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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President Donald Trump greets Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Elena Kagan, and Neil Gorsuch after the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington on Feb. 5, 2019. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Roberts singled out Merrick Garland, the chief judge of the District of Columbia Circuit, for tutoring for 10 years at a local elementary school. Garland was President Barack Obama’s third Supreme Court nominee. Republicans didn’t hold a vote on the nomination, saying that it was an election year and that any nomination should be left for the incoming president. President Donald Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch after assuming office.

Roberts urged judges “to continue their efforts to promote public confidence in the judiciary, both through their rulings and through civic outreach.”

“We should celebrate our strong and independent judiciary, a key source of national unity and stability. But we should also remember that justice is not inevitable,” he wrote. “We should reflect on our duty to judge without fear or favor, deciding each matter with humility, integrity, and dispatch. As the New Year begins, and we turn to the tasks before us, we should each resolve to do our best to maintain the public’s trust that we are faithfully discharging our solemn obligation to equal justice under law.”

Roberts, 64, was nominated to the court by Republican President George W. Bush in 2005.

The House impeached Trump in a strictly partisan vote in December. If the Senate holds an impeachment trial, as the Constitution outlines, Roberts would preside over the trial in a largely ceremonial but very visible role.

Roberts publicly clashed with Trump in late 2018 after Trump called a judge who ruled against his policy barring asylum for certain immigrants an “Obama judge.” A number of lower courts have seen opinions issued against Trump policies overturned by higher courts, including the Supreme Court.

“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges, or Clinton judges,” Roberts said in a statement.

“What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”

Trump issued a rebuttal, writing, “Sorry Chief Justice John Roberts, but you do indeed have ‘Obama judges,’ and they have a much different point of view than the people who are charged with the safety of our country.”

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