John Roberts weighs in on AI but ignores looming Trump cases

In his year-end report, Chief Justice John Roberts focused on the increasingly prominent role of artificial intelligence in legal practice.

Chief Justice John Roberts devoted his year-end report on the federal courts to reflecting on the perils and promise of artificial intelligence. Notably, he avoided addressing the ethics controversies that plagued the Supreme Court over the past year and the significant role the court is poised to play in the 2024 presidential election.

In the report issued on Sunday, Roberts predicted that the judicial system “will be significantly affected by AI” as the technology becomes more prevalent among law firms, legal clients, and judges.

However, the chief justice acknowledged that AI presents a mixed bag for the legal profession and the courts, streamlining some tasks while creating risks of fraud, discrimination, and intrusions on privacy.

“Legal research may soon be unimaginable without it,” wrote Roberts. “AI obviously has great potential to dramatically increase access to key information for lawyers and non-lawyers alike. But just as obviously, it risks invading privacy interests and dehumanizing the law.”

Roberts also alluded to some of the high-profile AI embarrassments in the legal realm over the past year, including instances where the technology led lawyers to cite non-existent cases. “Always a bad idea,” the chief justice added parenthetically.

While Roberts’ most famous public declaration remains his comment at his 2005 confirmation hearing that a judge’s job is “to call balls and strikes,” he took a different approach in the new report. He emphasized that many decisions made by judges involve nuance that only humans are likely to recognize.

“Legal determinations often involve gray areas that still require the application of human judgment,” the chief justice wrote. “I predict that human judges will be around for a while.”

The seven pages of text from Roberts in the report do not mention the spotlight on the Supreme Court over the past year or how it is likely to intensify in the coming months as the justices grapple with issues critical to the looming presidential election. These issues include whether former President Donald Trump should be allowed to remain on the ballot despite his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, whether he will be forced to spend time facing one or more criminal trials during the campaign season, and whether judges have violated the First Amendment through gag orders aimed at reining in Trump’s most fiery rhetoric about his legal woes.

Instead, Roberts highlighted the technological innovations the courts adopted during the coronavirus pandemic, including holding hearings by videoconference. Continuing these practices, he said, has allowed courts to “lock in efficiency gains.”

However, the chief justice did not note that federal courts have already rolled back some of those changes, including rescinding the ability of the press and the public to routinely monitor trials and other court proceedings via the phone or internet.

Roberts also chose not to delve into one technological change affecting his own institution: updates the court implemented to its cybersecurity practices following the publication by POLITICO in 2022 of a draft majority opinion overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision establishing a federal constitutional right to abortion.

In January 2023, the court disclosed that Roberts had “directed a comprehensive review of the Court’s information and document security protocols to mitigate the risk of future incidents.” No further updates on that review have emerged, although the chief justice on Sunday thanked the courts’ technology and cybersecurity staffers for their “indispensable work.”

While it wasn’t the case this year, Roberts’ annual reports have sometimes addressed issues of controversy, particularly around the high court’s ethics practices.

In 2011, he used his missive to explain and defend the court’s handling of ethics concerns, while gingerly rebutting the notion that the court needed a binding written code like the one that applies to federal judges on lower courts. Following reports about unreported luxury travel by justices and numerous calls for the high court to sign on to some sort of formal ethics code, it finally did so last month.

In 2021, Roberts used his annual report to lament the findings of a Wall Street Journal investigation that found nearly 700 instances where federal judges sat on cases they should have recused from due to their personal investments. The chief justice said the review showed that ethics training needed to be “more rigorous” and that conflict-checking computer programs were “due for a refresh.”