John Roberts Warns Americans They're Taking Democracy 'For Granted'

The chief justice of the Supreme Court has spoken out just a handful of times to defend democratic principles in the Trump era.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts warned that Americans have “come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside” in his annual year-end report.

“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,” the chief justice wrote, kicking off a pivotal election year with a message of caution. 

The security of America’s democratic elections has been a major concern ever since the U.S. intelligence community determined that Russia orchestrated an extensive online disinformation campaign to sway the last presidential election in 2016. So far, the task of ensuring that no foreign countries interfere in the 2020 election has fallen largely to individual states.

Roberts has spoken out about democratic principles a handful of times since President Donald Trump took office, breaking his usual silence outside the courtroom to defend the federal judiciary against the president’s attacks.

In October 2018, following the fiery opposition to Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, Roberts was moved to reaffirm the court’s independence from politics. The following month, he criticized Trump for referring to some federal judges as “Obama judges,” reiterating that the judicial branch is independent.

In his year-end report, the chief justice argued that federal judges help educate the public through thoughtfully written explanations of their decisions. He also pointed to an array of online civic education resources for teens and adults and touted the individual efforts of federal judges, including retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics program.

Roberts began the annual report, in which he summarizes trends in case filings and appeals, with a brief history lesson. In the fall of 1787, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay got together to write, in Roberts’ words, “America’s greatest civics lesson ― the Federalist Papers.” Those 85 essays helped convince the public to support the new Constitution. But Jay, the future first chief justice of the Supreme Court, wrote just five of them. Roberts noted that Jay was recovering from a nasty head injury at the time due to a riot that was unrelated to the new country’s foundation.

“It is sadly ironic that John Jay’s efforts to educate his fellow citizens about the Framers’ plan of government fell victim to a rock thrown by a rioter motivated by a rumor,” he wrote. “Happily, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay ultimately succeeded in convincing the public of the virtues of the principles embodied in the Constitution.”

Roberts concluded, “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.”