AI won’t displace human judges, but will affect judiciary, Roberts says in annual report

In his annual report, Chief Justice John Roberts on Sunday addressed the future of artificial intelligence in the judiciary. Roberts predicted that “human judges will be around for a while,” but he also suggested that “judicial work—particularly at the trial level—will be significantly affected by AI,” and he assured members of the public that committees within the federal judiciary would consider the use of AI in litigation in the federal courts.

Roberts submits the annual report each year on Dec. 31 – “to speak,” he wrote this year, “to a major issue relevant to the whole federal court system.” The Roberts report did not address several of the issues that the Supreme Court specifically faced in 2023, such as the news reports about some justices’ failures to include luxury travel and other gifts on their financial disclosures or the court’s inability to identify the source of the leaked opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Instead, Roberts focused on artificial intelligence, which in 2023 made news in the legal world when one AI tool, ChatGPT, passed several law school exams. But the use of AI tools for legal research can also be fraught with peril, as Michael Cohen, who once served as an attorney to former President Donald Trump, discovered when he relied on an AI tool to provide his criminal defense lawyer with citations to cases that turned out to be fake.

AI, Roberts wrote, “obviously has great potential to dramatically increase access to key information for lawyers and non-lawyers alike.” And AI could be particularly useful, he posited, in ensuring broader access to justice. But, he cautioned, “any use of AI requires caution and humility” because of the risk of “invading privacy interests and dehumanizing the law.”

Roberts rejected any suggestion that, as a result of AI, “judges are about to become obsolete.” He acknowledged that professional tennis tournaments now use “optical technology to determine whether 130 mile per hour serves are in or out.” However, Roberts – who at his confirmation hearing famously compared judges to baseball umpires tasked with calling balls or strikes – said, “legal determinations often involve gray areas, that still require application of human judgment.”

The Roberts report also included an appendix on the workload of the federal judiciary. Notably, during the 2022-23 term, when the number of cases argued at the court reached near-historic lows, the number of petitions for review filed at the court fell as well – by 15% overall, and by 22% for the “paid” cases (that is, those in which the individual or entity appealing the lower court’s decision can afford to pay the $300 filing fee and the costs of printing the briefs) that make up the overwhelming majority of the court’s merits docket.

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