Chief Justice says Supreme Court is working to answer ethical questions

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said Tuesday night that he and his Supreme Court colleagues were continuing to take steps to address questions about judges’ ethical standards amid a barrage of misconduct allegations. and pressure from some lawmakers to tighten the rules.

“I want to assure people that I am committed to ensuring that we as a court adhere to the highest standards of conduct,” he said. “We continue to look at the things we can do to give practical effect to this commitment, and I am confident that there are ways to do this, consistent with our status as an independent branch of government and the separation of powers from the Constitution.”

Chief Justice Roberts last month declined an invitation to testify before a Senate committee, citing the “extremely rare” nature of such an appearance, as lawmakers push for ethical changes in court. A series of revelations about undeclared gifts, travel and real estate transactions between Judge Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow, a Texan billionaire and Republican donor, rocked the court, although all nine justices defended their existing rules.

Chief Justice Roberts’ Tuesday remarks, delivered at an awards ceremony, were his first in-depth public thoughts, he said, since the coronavirus pandemic began. The court has since overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion; resisted leaking a draft of the decision and did not identify the source; and faced a deluge of news stories raising questions about financial disclosures and judicial recusal practices.

The Chief Justice was accepting an award from the American Law Institute named after one of his mentors, Justice Henry Friendly, a prominent appellate court judge for whom young John Roberts had once served as a law clerk.

“Things that happen outside of this chamber,” Chief Justice Roberts said, referring to the museum where the awards dinner was held, “would be deeply disappointing to him.”

The Chief Justice added: ‘There are many things in the legal world that he would find abhorrent. Judges heckled and shouted at law schools. Protesters outside the homes of judges, with marshal protection needed 24/7.”

If asked the toughest decision he’s had to make in his 18 years as federal justice chief, Chief Justice Roberts said he wouldn’t cite a particularly difficult case involving the first amendment, the death penalty or the separation of powers.

“None of those,” he said. “The hardest decision I had to make was whether or not to erect fences and barricades around the Supreme Court. I had no choice but to go ahead and do it.

Still, he said relations between the judges remained collegial. “I’m happy to say that there has never been a voice of anger at our conferences,” he said.

“When I walk down the halls and see a colleague, I’m always happy to have the opportunity to chat,” he said. “Now, to be fair, there have been days where I don’t feel like walking down the halls.”


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