Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said Tuesday night that he and his colleagues on the Supreme Court continued to take steps to address questions about the judges’ ethical standards amid a flurry of allegations of misconduct and pressure from some lawmakers to tighten up. 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 things we can do to give practical effect to that commitment, and I’m confident there are ways to do that consistent with our status as an independent branch of government and the separation of powers of the Constitution.”
Chief Justice Roberts declined an invitation last month to testify before a Senate committee, citing the “exceedingly rare” nature of such an appearance as lawmakers push for ethics changes at the court. A series of revelations about unreported gifts, travel and real estate deals between Justice Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow, a Texas billionaire and Republican donor, has rocked the court, although all nine justices have defended their existing rules.
The remarks Tuesday by Chief Justice Roberts, offered at an awards ceremony, were his first extensive public reflections, he said, since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, the Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion; managed the leak of a draft of the decision and failed to identify the source; and faced a barrage of news articles raising questions about the judges’ financial disclosures and recusal practices.
The chief justice received an award from the American Law Institute named after one of his mentors, Judge Henry Friendly, a prominent appellate judge for whom the young John Roberts had once clerked.
“The things that go on outside 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 is much in the legal world that he would find abhorrent. Judges hiccuped and shouted down at law schools. Protesters outside the homes of the courts, with marshal protection required 24/7.”
When asked about the most difficult decision he’s had to make in his 18 years as head of the federal judiciary, Chief Justice Roberts said he wouldn’t cite a particularly difficult First Amendment, capital punishment or separation of powers case.
“None of them,” he said. “The most difficult decision I had to make was whether to build fences and barricades around the Supreme Court. I had no choice but to go ahead and do it.”
Still, he said the relationship between the judges remained collegial. “I am happy to say that there has never been a voice raised in anger at our conferences,” he said.
“When I’m wandering down the halls and I see a colleague, I’m always happy to have a chance to chat,” he said. “Now, to be fair, there have been days when I didn’t feel like walking down the halls.”