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Fix the Court Statement Ahead of Chief Justice Roberts' Year-End Report

It’s been one heck of a year for judicial ethics.

News of three major leaks at SCOTUS.

Three congressional hearings on the topic.

One bill signed into law.

And a host of missed recusals and ethics lapses.

And although Chief Justice Roberts will most likely begin his annual report, due out in 11 days, with some anecdote about, say, a 19th century rapscallion stealing a territorial court’s charter, here’s to hoping he also uses it to get serious on SCOTUS ethics — a topic the country is becoming more and more attuned to. 

Here’s FTC’s Gabe Roth on what he wants to see in the statement:

“The increased public scrutiny the Supreme Court is under, due in large part to its growing power but also thanks to several headline-grabbing ethics scandals, isn’t going away. After all, it’s reasonable to expect a Court above all others also to be above suspicion.

“I hope that as the Chief Justice writes his year-end report, he considers this state of affairs and his institutional stewardship. Though it’s true the Chief hasn’t accepted free trips as part of an influence campaign, given a speech next to the Republican Senate Leader, hosted a Senate candidate at the Court, or failed to recuse in petitions implicating his spouse, these ethical breakdowns occurred on Roberts’ watch and are part of his legacy.

“There’s no doubt Roberts understands this; the question is what he’s going to do about it, and the public deserves answers fast. Any report that doesn’t reflect on the growing distrust Americans have in the Court — and doesn’t lay out a concrete strategy for how to reverse this trend — would thus be a disappointment.”

More information:
On ethics, it’s fair to say that in many ways Chief Justice Roberts has tried to lead by example. He doesn’t generally give talks to partisan organizations like the Federalist Society. (Okay, he did appear in a FedSoc video.) He hasn’t reported a gift on his financial disclosure report. (It’s possible he’s accepting gifts that aren’t reported, but that seems unlikely.) The only three ethics lapses of his we’ve documented are relatively minor oversights that are forgivable.

That the Chief has seemingly failed to convince his colleagues to similarly avoid impropriety or the appearance thereof is troubling. After all, Chief Justices have played critical roles in restoring institutional trust, or establishing ethical guidelines, in the past. Chief Justice Burger convened a special session of the Judicial Conference in 1970 following the Justice Fortas resignation in the prior year, at which he backed public disclosure of judicial outside income. And in 1991 and 1993 Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote memos, supported by colleagues, that clarified the justices’ gift and recusal rules.

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