WASHINGTON — At the end of a wrenching year at the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. devoted his annual report on the state of the federal judiciary to threats to judges’ physical safety.
“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,” he wrote. “A judicial system cannot and should not live in fear.”
Some observers had hoped that the chief justice would use his year-end report for an update on the investigation announced in May into the leak of a draft opinion eliminating the constitutional right to abortion. Others had wished that he would announce revisions to judicial ethics rules in the wake of revelations about the efforts of Virginia Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Instead, as is his custom, Chief Justice Roberts focused on a historical episode, this one from Arkansas in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, drawing lessons from it. “The events of Little Rock teach about the importance of rule by law instead of by mob,” he wrote.
Chief Justice Roberts recounted the bravery of a judge in 1957, three years after a unanimous Supreme Court ruled in Brown that segregated public schools violated the Constitution.
“Not everyone was convinced,” the chief justice wrote. Among the officials opposed to the Brown ruling was Gov. Orval Faubus of Arkansas, who ordered the state’s National Guard to prevent Black schoolchildren from entering Central High School in Little Rock.
Lawyers for the students, including Thurgood Marshall, who had argued the Brown case and would join the Supreme Court in 1967, went to federal court and appeared before Judge Ronald N. Davies, who ordinarily sat in Fargo, N.D., and was visiting to fill in for a judge who had fallen ill.
“Judge Davies had no idea what cases he would draw upon his arrival,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “But when it came time to rule in the school desegregation litigation, Davies did not flinch.”
The chief justice quoted from Judge Davies’s decision in favor of the students: “I have a constitutional duty and obligation from which I shall not shrink. In an organized society, there can be nothing but ultimate confusion and chaos if court decrees are flaunted.”
Timothy Davies, the judge’s son, told The New York Times that his father had not found the case difficult.
“He always said those decisions could be made by anyone who could read or write,” Timothy Davies said. “The law was clear, and there was nothing to decide.”
Judge Davies’s decision was not the end of the matter. To enforce it in the face of an angry mob, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called in the 101st Airborne to protect the Black students’ right to attend school.
That was a triumph for the rule of law, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, as well as a reminder that judges cannot take their physical security for granted.
“Judicial opinions speak for themselves, and there is no obligation in our free country to agree with them,” the chief justice wrote. “Indeed, we judges frequently dissent — sometimes strongly — from our colleagues’ opinions, and we explain why in public writings about the cases before us. But Judge Davies was physically threatened for following the law.”
The chief justice did not draw an explicit connection to the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in June in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that had established a constitutional right to abortion.
In remarks in October, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the author of the majority opinion in Dobbs, said the disclosure in May of a draft version of the opinion was a dangerous breach that had put justices in peril.
“It was a grave betrayal of trust by somebody,” he said. “It was a shock, because nothing like that had happened in the past. It certainly changed the atmosphere at the court for the remainder of last term.”
“The leak also made those of us who were thought to be in the majority in support of overruling Roe and Casey targets for assassination because it gave people a rational reason to think they could prevent that from happening by killing one of us,” Justice Alito said.
He said the idea was not fanciful, noting an attempt on the life of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. A California man armed with a pistol, a knife and other weapons was arrested in June near Justice Kavanaugh’s Maryland home and charged with attempted murder. Among other things, the man said he was upset with the leaked draft suggesting the Supreme Court would overturn Roe, the police have said.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that he welcomed legislation recently enacted to protect judges and their families.
“I want to thank the members of Congress who are attending to judicial security needs — these programs and the funding of them are essential to run a system of courts,” he wrote.
The new law, the Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act, was named after the son of Judge Esther Salas, of the Federal District Court in New Jersey. He was killed in 2020 when he answered the door to his mother’s home in what was meant to be an attack on her.
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