Chief Justice John Roberts defends Supreme Court's 'highest standards of conduct,' offers no new rules

Roberts makes rare public remarks on the court controversy at a DC legal gala.

May 24, 2023, 12:41 PM

In his first televised public remarks since the pandemic, Chief Justice John Roberts defended the integrity of the Supreme Court in the face of slumping public approval and growing political pressure after a recent barrage of misconduct allegations.

"I want to assure people that I am committed to making certain that we as a Court adhere to the highest standards of conduct," Roberts said Tuesday at the American Law Institute gala in Washington, D.C.

The gala, at which the chief justice was awarded the Henry J. Friendly Medal for contributions to the law, marked the first time Roberts directly addressed growing concern about how the justices handle potential conflicts of interest with their personal lives, a topic that has gotten renewed attention amid a series of alleged ethical infringements by Justice Clarence Thomas.

"We are continuing to look at things we can do to give practical effect to that commitment," Roberts said, "and I am confident there are ways to do that, that are consistent with our status as an independent branch of government under the constitutions, separation of powers."

Roberts did not indicate what additional steps the Court could take to shore up public confidence or when it might act.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts speaks during the American Law Institute's annual dinner in Washington, D.C., May 23, 2023.
Jose Luis Magana/AP

A series of reports exposed Thomas' undisclosed personal and financial ties to billionaire GOP mega-donor Harlan Crow. Thomas, who has denied wrongdoing, did not report gifts of luxury travel, real estate transactions and private tuition payments for a grandnephew on financial disclosure reports, according to ProPublica -- steps many legal experts say are required under federal ethics guidelines.

The revelations have renewed calls by Democrats to impose a binding ethics code on the justices with independent oversight, among other reforms aimed at boosting transparency. Republicans have branded the campaign for judicial reforms as a partisan attack on the court's credibility over dissatisfaction with recent decisions.

All nine current justices have signaled opposition to the Democratic proposals, recently signing a public memo explaining their ethics standards and how they are practiced.

"The justices ... consult a wide variety of authorities to address specific ethical issues," the members of the high court said in a document titled "Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices."

During an earlier wave of public concerns about ethics at the high court in 2012, Roberts had the justices would study whether to formally adopt a code of conduct of its own but so far declined to do so.

The court has suffered declining favorability in recent months. A new poll by Marquette University Law School -- the first since the Justice Thomas allegations were reported by ProPublica last month -- finds 41% of Americans approve of the way the Supreme Court is doing its job, while 59% disapprove.

A narrow majority, 51%, of the public now thinks justices base their rulings mainly on their personal political opinions instead of on the law, and well fewer than half, 39%, think Supreme Court rulings are based mainly on the law -- a seven-point drop in this measure of confidence in the court, according to an ABC New/Washington Post poll published earlier this month.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts delivers remarks at The American Law Institute's 2023 Annual Dinner at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., May 23, 2023.
Sarah Silbiger/Reuters

In his speech Tuesday, Roberts suggested he has been troubled by the changing relationship between the public and the judiciary, lamenting protests against judges on law school campuses and growing threats of violence that resulted in U.S. Marshal protection outside their homes 24/7.

"The hardest decision I had to make was whether to erect fences and barricades around the Supreme Court," Roberts said, referencing fallout from the decision last spring to overrule Roe v. Wade.

"I had no choice but to go ahead and do it. But while it was going on while the fences were going up, I kept hearing [then Chief justice] Charles Evans Hughes's remarks at the opening of the Supreme Court building: He said, 'the Republic endures, and this is the symbol of its faith.'"

A sign hangs on a security fence in front of the Supreme Court, where today, written opinions in pending, argued cases, are expected to be issued, May 18, 2023.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Despite the partisan concerns swirling about the high court, Roberts insisted the six conservative and three liberal justices maintain "collegial relations," as is the historic norm. Ahead of his Tuesday night remarks, Roberts was introduced by Justice Elena Kagan, a liberal serving alongside him.

Kagan, appointed by former President Barack Obama, lavished Roberts with praise as a statesman and professional, and she suggested he deserves more public credit for his service than he has received.

"He is a consummate legal craftsman. He writes intelligibly and powerfully about the most difficult issues of the law. He produces work of great insight and analytic strength and penetration and eloquence," Kagan said.

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