Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said on Tuesday night that he and his colleagues on the Supreme Court were continuing to take steps to address questions about the justices’ ethical standards amid a barrage of allegations of misconduct and a push by some lawmakers to tighten the rules.
“I want to assure people that I am committed to making certain that we as a court adhere to the highest standards of conduct,” he said. “We are continuing 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 consistent with our status as an independent branch of government and the Constitution’s separation of powers.”
Chief Justice Roberts turned down 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 shaken the court, though all nine justices have defended their existing rules.
The remarks on 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 overruled Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion; weathered the leak of a draft of the ruling and failed to identify the source; and faced a barrage of news articles raising questions about the justices’ financial disclosures and recusal practices.
The chief justice was accepting an award from the American Law Institute named for one of his mentors, Judge Henry Friendly, a prominent appeals court judge for whom the young John Roberts had once served as a law clerk.
“The things going on outside this chamber,” Chief Justice Roberts said, referring to the museum where the awards dinner was being held, “would be deeply disappointing to him.”
The chief justice added: “There is much in the legal world that he would find abhorrent. Judges heckled and shouted down at law schools. Protesters outside the homes of justices, with marshal protection needed 24/7.”
If asked the hardest decision he had to make in his 18 years as the head of the federal judiciary, Chief Justice Roberts said, he would not cite a particularly difficult First Amendment, death penalty or separation of powers case.
“None of those,” he said. “The hardest decision I had to make was whether to erect fences and barricades around the Supreme Court. I had no choice but to go ahead and do it.”
Still, he said relations among the justices remained collegial. “I am happy to be able to say that there has never been a voice raised in anger at our conferences,” he said.
“When I wander down the hallways and I see a colleague, I am always happy to have a chance to chat,” he said. “Now, to be fair, there have been days when I don’t feel like walking down the halls.”