December 31, 2019 / 11:03 PM / a month ago

U.S. chief justice warns of internet disinformation, urges civics education

(Reuters) - U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts expressed concern on Tuesday about disinformation amplified by the internet and social media as he focused his year-end report on the weakening state of civics education in the United States.

FILE PHOTO: Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts is seen during a group portrait session for the new full court at the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Young

“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,” Roberts said in his annual report on behalf of the federal judiciary.

The chief justice warned that Americans “have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside.”

Roberts’ comments come as U.S. legislators and officials have raised concerns about the persistence of foreign propaganda and false news aimed at sowing discord in the U.S. political system in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

U.S. intelligence agencies and an inquiry by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller found that Russia engaged in a campaign of hacking and propaganda to sway the 2016 presidential race toward Republican President Donald Trump. Mueller did not establish that members of Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia during the 2016 election.

Roberts said in his report that an independent judiciary was a “key source of national unity and stability” and called on his judicial colleagues to promote public confidence and trust by reflecting on their duty to judge without fear or favor.

He has previously lamented the perception in an increasingly polarized society that lower courts and the Supreme Court are becoming politicized, and that judges are guided primarily by their partisan affiliations.

Trump has repeatedly criticized federal courts and judges who have blocked his policies, while some Democratic lawmakers have suggested that the Supreme Court’s conservative majority is motivated mainly by politics instead of interpreting the law.

Roberts, 64, named to the court in 2005 by Republican President George W. Bush, is poised to preside over Trump’s looming U.S. Senate impeachment trial, a highly visible yet largely ceremonial role.

By the end of June, the Supreme Court is expected to decide several major cases involving a number of hot-button issues including abortion rights, Trump’s move to kill a program that protects young immigrants, dubbed “Dreamers,” who were brought to the United States illegally as children, and Trump’s bid to keep details of his finances secret.

Roberts listed in his report a number of ways his judicial colleagues had helped advance public understanding of the law and civics knowledge.

He cited the example of Merrick Garland, chief judge of the Washington-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, who volunteers as a tutor at a local elementary school. Garland’s 2016 nomination to the Supreme Court by Democratic President Barack Obama was not taken up by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Roberts’ annual report was released just a few days after the death of his mother, Rosemary Roberts, who died on Saturday at age 90.

Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Peter Cooney

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