WASHINGTON — Amid a decline in public confidence in the Supreme Court and calls to expand its membership, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. his year-end annual report on the federal judiciary on Friday to a plea for judicial independence.
“The judiciary’s power to regulate its internal affairs isolates courts from undue political influence and is crucial to maintaining public confidence in its work as a separate and equal arm of government,” he wrote.
The report comes less than a month after a bipartisan commission appointed by President Biden concluded its work studying changes in the federal judiciary. While that panel analyzed proposals such as imposing 18-year terms on judges and expanding or “packing” the court with additional judges, much of the chief justice’s report focused on thwarting less controversial Congressional efforts. to address financial conflict and workplace misconduct in the judiciary. Both issues are the subject of legislative proposals that have received bipartisan support.
Gabe Roth, the executive director of Fix the Court, a nonprofit that has called for stricter Supreme Court ethics rules, said the chief justice faced an uphill battle.
“Chief Justice Roberts takes a page out of his old playbook: Recognizing institutional challenges in the judiciary, but telling the public that only we judges can solve them,” said Mr. Roth. “Yet the problems of overlooked financial conflict and sexual harassment are serious and endemic, and there is no indication that they are going away. So Congress has every right to intervene and, through legislation, hold the Third Branch to account, which is expected to happen in 2022.”
Chief Justice Roberts spoke at length about a recent series of articles in The Wall Street Journal that found that 131 federal judges had violated federal law by bringing 685 lawsuits between 2010 and 2018 involving companies in which they or their families owned stock.
“Let me be crystal clear: the judiciary is taking this case seriously,” the chief justice wrote. “We expect judges to hold to the highest standards, and those judges have broken an ethical rule. But I do want to put these gaps in context.”
In the aggregate of things, he wrote, the number of violations was negligibly small.
“According to The Wall Street Journal’s own data,” he wrote, “the 685 identified cases represent a very small fraction — less than three-hundredths of 1 percent — of the 2.5 million civil cases filed with the United States in nine years.” district courts in the study, which is a 99.97 percent compliance rate.”
“Yet,” he wrote, “this context is no excuse. It is our duty to strive for 100 percent compliance, because public trust is essential and not ancillary to our position.”
Though Chief Justice Roberts did not mention it, the Supreme Court is not immune to similar errors. For example, in 2017, after participating in pleadings in a patent case, the Supreme Court announced that Chief Justice Roberts “concluded that he should not continue to participate in this case”.
He had discovered, the court said, that he owned 1,212 shares of the parent company of one of the parties to the case. The shares were worth more than $100,000, according to a financial disclosure report.
“The usual conflict control conducted in the chief judge’s chambers inadvertently failed to find this potential conflict,” said a letter from a court official to attorneys in the patent case.
In the report released Friday, Chief Justice Roberts called for stricter ethical training and better conflict control systems. He did not address a solution that many ethical experts are pushing for: banning judges from investing in individual stocks.
Chief Justice Roberts also addressed what he called “the ongoing concern about inappropriate behavior in the judicial workplace.”
The issue has been a topic of several chief justice reports since 2017, when Judge Alex Kozinski, who had served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for more than three decades, announced his retirement after The Washington Post reported that such a 15 women had accused him of sexual harassment.
The women, many of whom had served as his clerk, said Judge Kozinski touched them inappropriately, made unwelcome sexual comments and made them look at sexual materials on his computer.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote Friday that the federal judiciary had taken many steps to make its workplaces safe, including revising its procedures to “provide robust mechanisms for reporting and addressing cases of misconduct.”
As his custom began, the Chief Justice began his report with a historical outline. This year it belonged to William H. Taft, who was appointed chief justice a century ago after serving as president. Chief Justice Taft, a great man, was an energetic administrator.
“Taft sought to displace the prevailing culture of isolation in which each judge was — in his words — left to ‘paddle his own canoe,'” wrote Chief Justice Roberts.
“Once you get past the image of ‘Big Bill’ paddling in a canoe, remember that he knew well how to navigate the halls of Congress,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, adding: “He threw his considerable political weight in creating the mechanisms of self-governance for federal courts across the country.”
While Chief Justice Roberts did not respond to proposals to increase the size of his court or impose restrictions on members, he described Chief Justice Taft’s efforts to preserve the independence of the judiciary with approval.
“He understood that criticism of the courts is inevitable,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts, “and he lived in an era when federal courts faced fierce calls for reform, some justified and some not.”
The proper response, the current Chief Justice said, Chief Justice Taft once said, was “to remove, as far as possible, grounds for just criticism of our justice system.”