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Chief Justice John Roberts seeks to reassure the public about Supreme Court ethics


Tom Williams/AP

In this file photo, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts attends President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on February 7, 2023.


Chief Justice John Roberts said Tuesday night that he wants to reassure the public that the Supreme Court is committed to the “highest standards of conduct,” appearing to direct his remarks at critics of the high court amid recent ethics controversies.

“We continue to look at things we can do to give practical effect to that commitment, and I am confident that there are ways to do that that are consistent with our status as an independent branch of government under the separation of powers ,” Roberts told an audience gathered in Washington, DC, for an event hosted by the American Law Institute where he received a medal honoring the late Judge Henry J. Friendly.

The comments by Roberts, a former associate at Friendly, come as members of Congress and public interest groups push the court to adopt an ethics code targeting the judges following revelations that Justice Clarence Thomas had accepted lavish travel from a GOP donor and had engaged engage in private real estate transactions without providing information on their financial information forms.

Roberts’ speech seemed to suggest that the court may soon have more say in efforts to increase transparency when it comes to ethics practices. But the chief also appeared to emphasize his concern that Congress should not get involved in the internal affairs of a separate branch of government. Roberts declined a request last month to testify before Congress in a Supreme Court ethics hearing.

Roberts also lamented the current state of public discourse Tuesday night, citing a recent incident in which a judge was roughed up during an appearance at a law school and that protesters outside the judges’ homes have necessitated 24/7 protection.

Roberts said the “hardest decision” he has had to make over the past 18 years was whether to “erect fences and barricades around the Supreme Court.” The fence fell before the start of the current term.

Inside the court, however, there is “reason for optimism,” he said, reiterating that the justices have never raised their voices in anger during their private conferences.

“We deal with some of the most controversial issues in the country, but we maintain collegial relations with each other,” he said.

Roberts’ appearance comes as the judges have entered the most tense time of the year as they race to finalize opinions before a self-imposed deadline at the end of June. The most difficult cases are often left until the end, with judges considering issues such as affirmative action, voting rights and religious freedom.

The court is also still reeling from the drama of the last term, when a draft of the landmark opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade was leaked to the press — an event that would spark protests across the country and a leak investigation at the Supreme Court. The investigation has so far yielded no results.

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