John Roberts weighs in on AI, ignores looming Trump cases

“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
prompted lawyers to cite cases that did not exist
.

“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 tack in the new report, emphasizing that many decisions made by judges are susceptible to nuance that only humans are likely to recognize.

“Legal determinations often involve gray areas that still require 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 wrestle with issues critical to the looming presidential election. Those 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 touted many technological innovations the courts adopted during the coronavirus pandemic, including holding hearings by videoconference. Continuing those practices, he said, have allowed courts to “lock in efficiency gains.”

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

Roberts also chose not to delve into one sort of 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.”

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Josh Gerstein