Supreme court chief justice John Roberts has focused a year-end judiciary report on the need for stepped up security for federal judges, amid a surge in threats and as the United States is embroiled in a bitter debate over abortion.
But Roberts chose to skirt around all the controversy engulfing the court in 2022, especially the chapter as its conservative super-majority struck down federal abortion rights afforded by the court’s landmark 1973 decision in Roe v Wade, in a decision that was scandalously leaked in the spring and then confirmed in June.
Instead he leaned into programs to protect judges against threats, which have escalated against supreme court justices in particular.
“The law requires every judge to swear an oath to perform his or her work without fear or favor, but we must support judges by ensuring their safety,” Roberts wrote, adding, “A judicial system cannot and should not live in fear.”
According to the US Marshals Service, judges were subject to 4,511 threats and inappropriate communications in 2021, up from 926 in 2015. Threats targeting members of Congress have also significantly surged in recent years.
An armed California man was charged last June with attempted murder after being arrested near the home of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
The man told authorities he was upset about a leaked draft opinion to strike down Roe that was the key element in the Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization case that emerged from Mississippi.
Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion in the Dobbs case, later said the leak made conservative justices “targets for assassination”.
Liberals have criticized the high court’s six-three conservative majority as being out of step with public sentiment on abortion and other cases touching on social issues.
With several more high-profile cases pending, the supreme court potentially could end affirmative action policies used to increase racial diversity on college campuses and make it easier for businesses to refuse services to LGBTQ+ people based on free-speech rights.
Roberts, writing in an annual year-end report about the federal judiciary, did not specifically mention the abortion decision, but the case and the reaction to it seemed clearly on his mind.
“Judicial opinions speak for themselves, and there is no obligation in our free country to agree with them. Indeed, we judges frequently dissent – sometimes strongly – from our colleagues’ opinions, and we explain why in public writings about the cases before us,” he wrote.
Polls following the abortion decision show public trust in the court is at historic lows. And two of Roberts’ liberal colleagues who dissented in the abortion case, Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, have said the court needs to be concerned about overturning precedent and appearing political.
After the leak and threat to Kavanaugh, lawmakers passed legislation increasing security protection for the justices and their families. Separately, in December, lawmakers passed legislation protecting the personal information of federal judges including their addresses.