Chief Justice Roberts reflects on conflict, harassment and judicial independence
WASHINGTON – Amid waning public confidence in the Supreme Court and calls for more membership, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. dedicated his late annual report on Friday year on federal justice to a plea for judicial independence.
“The power of the judiciary to manage its internal affairs protects the courts from inappropriate political influence and is essential to preserve public confidence in its work as a separate and equal branch of government,” he wrote.
The report comes less than a month after a bipartisan commission appointed by President Biden completed its work to study changes to the federal justice system. While this panel analyzed proposals such as imposing 18-year term limits on judges and expanding or “consolidating” the court with additional judges, much of the Chief Justice’s report focused on on tackling the less controversial efforts of Congress to resolve financial disputes and malpractice. in the justice system. Both issues are the subject of a bill that has received bipartisan support.
Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, a non-profit group that called for stricter ethics rules for the Supreme Court, said the chief justice faced an uphill battle.
“Chief Justice Roberts takes a page from his old playbook: Recognizing institutional challenges in the justice system but telling the public that only we judges can solve them,” Mr. Roth said. “Yet the problems of neglected financial conflicts and sexual harassment are serious and endemic, and there is no indication that they are going away. So Congress has every right to intervene and, through legislation, hold the Third Branch to account, which I expect to happen in 2022. “
Chief Justice Roberts spoke at length to a recent series of articles in the Wall Street Journal which revealed that 131 federal judges had violated federal law by hearing 685 lawsuits between 2010 and 2018 involving companies in which they or their families held shares.
“Be crystal clear: the judiciary is taking this matter seriously,” the chief justice wrote. “We expect judges to adhere to the highest standards, and those judges have violated a rule of ethics. But I want to put these differences in context.
In the scheme of things, he writes, the number of violations was extremely low.
“According to the Wall Street Journal’s own data,” he wrote, “the 685 cases identified represent a very small fraction – less than three hundredths of 1% – of the 2.5 million civil cases filed in court. district during the nine years inclusive. in the study. That’s a 99.97 percent compliance rate.
“Yet,” he writes, “this context is no excuse. We have a duty to strive for 100% compliance because public trust is essential, not incidental, to our function. “
Although Chief Justice Roberts did not mention it, the Supreme Court was not immune from similar failures. In 2017, for example, after participating in oral argument in a patent case, the Supreme Court announced that Chief Justice Roberts “concluded that he should not continue to participate in this case.”
He had discovered, according to the court, that he owned 1,212 shares of the parent company of one of the parties to the case. The shares were worth more than $ 100,000, according to a financial disclosure report.
“The regular conflict audit conducted in the chambers of the chief justice failed to inadvertently find this potential conflict,” a letter from a court official to attorneys in the patent case said.
In the report released Friday, Chief Justice Roberts called for more rigorous ethics training and better conflict control systems. He did not address a solution advocated by many ethics experts: prohibiting judges from investing in individual stocks.
Chief Justice Roberts also referred to what he called “the continuing concern about inappropriate behavior in the judicial workplace”.
The issue had been a topic in several reports from the Chief Justice since 2017, when Judge Alex Kozinski, who had served on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for more than three decades, announced his retirement after that the Washington Post reported that about 15 women accused him of sexual harassment.
The women, many of whom had been his paralegals, said Judge Kozinski touched them inappropriately, made unwanted sexual comments and made them watch sexually-oriented material on his computer.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote on Friday that federal justice has taken many steps to make its workplaces safe, including revising its procedures to “provide strong mechanisms to report and deal with cases of misconduct.”
As usual, the Chief Justice began his report with a historical sketch. This year it was William H. Taft, who was appointed Chief Justice a century ago after serving as President. Chief Justice Taft, a tall man, was an energetic administrator.
“Taft sought to supplant the dominant culture of seclusion in which each judge was – in his own words – left to ‘paddle their own canoe’,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.
“Once you get past the image of ‘Big Bill’ paddling a canoe, consider that he knew how to navigate the halls of Congress,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, adding: “He has devoted his weight considerable policy in creating self-governance mechanisms for federal courts across the country.
Although Chief Justice Roberts did not address proposals to increase the size of his tribunal or impose term limits on its members, he described with approval Chief Justice Taft’s efforts to preserve independence. judicial.
“He understood that criticism of the courts is inevitable,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “and he lived through a time when federal courts faced shrill calls for reform, some justified and others not. “
The appropriate response, said the current Chief Justice, Chief Justice Taft once said, was to “remove, to the extent possible, grounds for fair criticism of our justice system.”