WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court is working to address concerns about justices’ ethics, Chief Justice John Roberts told a gathering of lawyers in the nation’s capital on May 23 in a speech that was short on specifics.
Roberts’s comments came at a dinner hosted by the American Law Institute at the National Building Museum. His colleague, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, presented Roberts with the group’s Henry J. Friendly Medal. Roberts previously served as a law clerk to Friendly, who was an influential judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit; Friendly died in 1986.
Roberts was appointed by former President George W. Bush.
While allegations against Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative jurist appointed by the late President George H.W. Bush, have received intense media coverage, Roberts didn’t address issues that have been raised against specific justices.
‘Highest Standards of Conduct’
Thomas has recently been the focus of Democratic lawmakers who have criticized him—sometimes in scathing terms—for, among other things, accepting gifts from his friend, wealthy GOP donor Harlan Crow, without publicly disclosing those gifts, which have largely taken the form of lavish vacations.
Crow, Thomas, and the justice’s wife, conservative activist Ginni Thomas, have been friends for decades. Justice Thomas said he was previously advised that he didn’t have to report such gifts, although he says he will do so going forward.
Legal experts say there’s no conflict of interest because Crow hasn’t had any business before the Supreme Court and because it’s not illegal for justices to have wealthy, generous friends.
However, Democrats and left-wing activists accuse Thomas of corruption and are pressuring Congress to impose a code of ethics on the Supreme Court, which legal experts say Congress has no power to do under the Constitution.
Roberts told the gathering that he’s personally focused on maintaining good ethics.
“I want to assure people that I’m committed to making certain that we as a court adhere to the highest standards of conduct,” he said.
“We are continuing to look at things we can do to give practical effect to that commitment, and I am confident there are ways to do that that are consistent with our status as an independent branch of government and with the Constitution’s separation of powers.”
Roberts didn’t elaborate on what he or other justices may be doing on the ethics front.
Roe v. Wade
Roberts also said he was disappointed that public discourse has taken a turn for the worse.
Supreme Court justices have required “24/7” security because of protests outside their personal residences, and judges have been “shouted down” in public, he said.
Roberts seemed to be referring to an event at Stanford Law School in March at which Judge Kyle Duncan, a Trump appointee on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, was silenced when he was aggressively heckled by radical students.
The chief justice said it bothered him to have to order stricter security measures outside the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill.
Because the court is such an important symbol, “the hardest decision I had to make was whether to erect fences and barricades outside the Supreme Court.”
“I had no choice but to go ahead and do it,” he said.
The fencing went up in May 2022 after an early draft of the court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—which overturned Roe v. Wade—was leaked to the media, in a major breach of court protocol. Protests intensified after the leak. The fencing was removed months later. Supreme Court officials have investigated the leak but no culprit has ever been identified.
Most Controversial Issues
Despite these challenges, the justices’ spirits remain high, Roberts suggested.
There is “cause for optimism” inside the court, he said.
“I am happy that I can continue to say that there has never been a voice raised in anger in our conference room,” Roberts said, referring to the chamber in which justices discuss and vote on pending cases.
“Our court consists of nine appointees by four presidents. We deal with some of the most controversial issues in the country, yet we maintain collegial relations with each other,” he said.
“When I wander down the halls and see a colleague, I am always happy to have the chance to chat,” Roberts said.
“Now, to be fair, there are many days where I don’t feel like walking down the halls,” he quipped.
Kagan, who criticized some of her colleagues after the Dobbs decision, which she dissented from, praised Roberts in glowing terms during remarks introducing the chief justice. In Dobbs, Roberts voted to uphold a state law restricting abortion but voted not to strike down Roe v. Wade.
“The chief is incapable of writing a bad sentence,” said Kagan, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama.
“His writing has depth, intelligence, crystal clarity, grace, humor, and understated style. That writing is, in my humble opinion, the best writing in law. He is a consummate legal craftsman.”
This article by Matthew Vadum appeared May 24, 2023, in The Epoch Times.