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Chief Justice Roberts, In Year-End Report, Says AI Won’t Make Judges Obsolete, But Will Transform their Work

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. used his year-end report to weigh in on the impact of artificial intelligence on the legal profession, saying he does not believe AI will replace human judges.

“As 2023 draws to a close with breathless predictions about the future of Artificial Intelligence, some may wonder whether judges are about to become obsolete,” he wrote. “I am sure we are not — but equally confident that technological changes will continue to transform our work.”

Every year, Roberts uses his year-end report to address a major issue relevant to the entire federal court system. This year, he focused on AI, and more specifically on the question of whether AI might someday replace judges, concluding, “Machines cannot fully replace key actors in court.”

He drew a contrast to professional tennis, where line judges have been replaced with optical technology to determine whether 130 miles-per-hour serves are in or out. “There is no discretion; the ball either did or did not hit the line.”

But for trial judges in court, nuance matters, Roberts said.

“Much can turn on a shaking hand, a quivering voice, a change of inflection, a bead of sweat, a moment’s hesitation, a fleeting break in eye contact. And most people still trust humans more than machines to perceive and draw the right inferences from these clues.”

Like trial judges, appellate judges also “perform quintessentially human functions,” he wrote. Their decisions often turn on whether a lower court has abused its discretion or on questions about how the law should develop. “AI is based largely on existing information, which can inform but not make such decisions.”

Significant Impact on Judiciary

That said, Roberts acknowledged that, even though “human judges will be around for a while,” AI will have a significant impact on the judiciary.

“[W]ith equal confidence I predict that judicial work — particularly at the trial level — will be significantly affected by AI. Those changes will involve not only how judges go about doing their job, but also how they understand the role that AI plays in the cases that come before them.”

That impact is likely to be positive in several ways, Roberts predicted. Among them, AI applications “indisputably assist” the judicial system in advancing the goal the “just, speedy, and inexpensive” resolution of cases.

It also promises to enhance access to justice, Roberts believes.

“For those who cannot afford a lawyer, AI can help. It drives new, highly accessible tools that provide answers to basic questions, including where to find templates and court forms, how to fill them out, and where to bring them for presentation to the judge — all without leaving home. These tools have the welcome potential to smooth out any mismatch between available resources and urgent needs in our court system.”

While the focus of the report is on cutting-edge AI, Roberts begins with a history of technology adoption in the federal courts. It was not until 1989, he notes, that the judicial branch finally provided PCs to secretaries in judges’ chambers and ensured there was at least one PC available to be shared by each judge’s law clerks.

In the Supreme Court, “computers came slowly but surely,” Roberts wrote. “In 1976, Justice Lewis Powell deployed a rented Wang computer in his chambers. Several other Justices observed the satisfactory performance of this newfangled ‘word processing machine’ and followed suit the next year.”

But by 2000, “change came fast” to the federal courts. “The paper world familiar to lawyers for centuries had largely given way to today’s electronic regime.”

“And now,” he continued, “we face the latest technological frontier: artificial intelligence.”

He notes that AI can earn Bs on law school exams and even pass the bar exam, and he says that legal research “may soon be unimaginable without it.”

But the use of AI also requires caution and humility, he said. He noted its propensity to hallucinate, its potential to compromise client information, and due process concerns about its use in criminal cases.

Roberts concluded his year-end report with a shoutout to the “skilled and dedicated information systems professionals” who support the courts.

“Gone are the days when the quill pen alone was sufficient to maintain a docket; courts could not do our work without technologists and cybersecurity experts in the Department of Technology Services at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, at the circuit-wide level, and in individual courts.”

You can read the full report here.

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