Bloomberg Law
May 24, 2023, 2:31 AM

Chief Justice Roberts Says He’s Committed to Highest Standards

Emily Birnbaum
Greg Stohr
Greg Stohr
Bloomberg News

Chief Justice John Roberts said he is “committed” to ensuring the Supreme Court adheres to the highest standards of conduct, even as some justices come under increased scrutiny by the public and Congress.

“I want to assure people I am committed to make certain that we as a court adhere to the highest standards of conduct,” Roberts said during remarks at an awards ceremony hosted by the American Law Institute. “We are continuing to look at things we can do practically to that effect.”

“I am confident there are ways to do that that are consistent with our status as independent branch of government under the constitution’s separation of powers,” Roberts added.

The remarks were Roberts’ first public comments outside court since September, when he defended the institution against suggestions that it was losing its legitimacy. He made the comments as Congress pursues investigations into the conduct of Justice Clarence Thomas and explores whether to pass legislation creating a code of conduct for the high court.

The court has become engulfed in a series of ethical controversies, many of them centering around lavish vacations and other benefits conferred on Thomas by Republican megadonor Harlan Crow. Thomas has also faced questions about his participation in cases involving the Jan. 6 Capitol attack despite efforts by wife, conservative activist Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, to get the Trump administration to do more to overturn the election results.

In addition, a New York Times report in November said a network of anti-abortion activists used a charity tied to the court to cultivate relationships with the justices and try to influence them.

The controversies have fueled calls for the Supreme Court to adopt a binding code of conduct like the one that applies to other federal judges.

Roberts has stayed mum amid the fray. When he was asked by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin to testify on ethics reform, Roberts turned down the request with a letter that offered no hint he bore any concern about the controversies. He attached a four-page statement, signed by all nine justices, that largely restated the court’s existing ethics practices.

In his remarks Tuesday, Roberts said the “hardest decision” he has made during his tenure at the Supreme Court was his call to erect barriers around the Supreme Court. The fence was built around the Supreme Court amid fervent protests over the court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, wiping out the constitutional right to an abortion.

Roberts mentioned “protestors outside the homes of justices” and “the extent marshal protection is needed 24/7” as two of the most difficult developments impacting the court.

The court has been transformed by the arrival of three conservative justices appointed by then-President Donald Trump. In addition to overturning the right to abortion, the court has established a demanding new test for gun regulations, bolstered religious rights and curbed the power of federal regulatory agencies to address major issues including climate change.

Roberts, a 2005 appointee of Republican President George W. Bush, at times has sought to slow the pace of change. In last year’s abortion case, he unsuccessfully urged his colleagues to stop short of overturning Roe v. Wade.

The high court is nearing the homestretch of its current nine-month term, with decisions still to come on the use of race in college admissions, President Joe Biden’s student-debt relief plan and federal election law.

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan presented the award to Roberts. Although the two are close – and in some cases are able to craft consensus opinions – Kagan has been among the court’s fiercest critics, even hinting that it might be squandering its legitimacy.

“If one judge dies or leaves a court, and another judge comes in, and all of a sudden the law changes on you, what does that say?” she said in September, without naming names or mentioning particular cases. “You know, that just doesn’t seem a lot like law, if it can depend so much on which particular person is on the court. It just seems at that point like all personal preference.”

Kagan during her remarks at the American Law Institute event complimented Roberts’ “judicial craftsmanship.”

“There’s a lot the chief and I don’t agree on, except apparently about copyright, where we are two kindred souls,” Kagan joked, referring to last week’s decision when she and Roberts were alone in opposing a ruling that found artist Andy Warhol violated a copyright in creating 16 images of the musician Prince.

“But on many other matters, there’s some times I really could tear my hair out about the things he thinks and I’m sure he would say the exact same thing of me,” Kagan said. “Those things we disagree about, they have consequence, they matter, they matter in our society, they matter in peoples’ lives and that shouldn’t ever be forgotten.”

To contact the reporters on this story:
Emily Birnbaum in Washington at;
Greg Stohr in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Sara Forden at

Joe Schneider

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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