AI latest technological frontier impacting judiciary, Chief Justice Roberts says in year-end report

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Artificial intelligence and other technological changes will continue to transform the work of the courts, but U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts says he is sure judges will not become obsolete.

That was one of the chief justice’s main points in his 2023 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, which was released Dec. 31.

Roberts noted the judiciary has, in general, been notoriously averse to change.

From using typewriters to the introduction of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records and Case Management/Electronic Case Files systems, there have been technological shifts brought about to aid the judiciary, the chief justice noted.

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in yet another wave of rapid technological innovation, he continued.

“Courts at all levels of the judiciary immediately shifted from in-person to remote hearings in civil cases. With the adoption of the CARES Act, many criminal proceedings also shifted online. Key innovations first adopted as temporary have now become permanent features of the legal landscape, allowing litigants, lawyers, and courts to lock in efficiency gains that do not undercut other important legal or constitutional rights,” he wrote.

With AI, the new technology has great potential to dramatically increase access to key information for lawyers and nonlawyers alike. But it also “risks invading privacy interests and dehumanizing the law,” Roberts pointed out.

The chief justice wrote that proponents of AI tout its potential to increase access to justice, particularly for litigants with limited resources.

But the use of the technology also requires humility and caution.

Roberts noted that AI made headlines in 2023 for a shortcoming known as “hallucination,” which caused the lawyers using the application to submit briefs with citations to nonexistent cases.

According to Roberts, some legal scholars have raised concerns about whether entering confidential information into an AI tool might compromise later attempts to invoke legal privileges.

“In criminal cases, the use of AI in assessing flight risk, recidivism, and other largely discretionary decisions that involve predictions has generated concerns about due process, reliability, and potential bias. At least at present, studies show a persistent public perception of a ‘human-AI fairness gap,’ reflecting the view that human adjudications, for all of their flaws, are fairer than whatever the machine spits out,” he wrote.

Machines cannot fully replace key actors in court, Roberts stressed, even as he acknowledged that many AI applications indisputably assist the judicial system with the “just, speedy, and inexpensive” resolution of cases.

He concluded by predicting that human judges will be around for a while.

“But with equal confidence I predict that judicial work — particularly at the trial level — will be significantly affected by AI,” he wrote. “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.”

The full report can be viewed online.

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