Today in the Huffington Post, AFJ President Nan Aron took a look at Chief Justice John Roberts’ annual report on the federal judiciary. In his most recent report, Chief Justice Roberts devoted a fair amount of time to the ethics concerns AFJ and others have been raising in recent months. Unfortunately, as Nan documents, the chief justice’s defense of his colleagues’ behavior misses the mark.
Unfortunately, in spite of substantial evidence to the contrary, the message from Roberts is that he sees no ethics problem at the Court and that no reforms are needed or desirable. Besides, he inferred, no one can make rules for us anyway.
Over 140 law professors, newspaper editorial boards, and groups like Alliance for Justice, Common Cause, and others, have called for increased accountability and transparency from a Court that is steadily and alarmingly losing the trust of the public. The Chief Justice’s casual dismissal of the ethics issues as the consequence of “misconceptions” will further erode the Court’s credibility.
Calls for reform have been precipitated by a series of actions by some justices that call into question their judgment about ethical matters. For example, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas famously–or infamously–attended events at overtly political strategy conferences hosted by the Koch Brothers, and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Samuel Alito have headlined and lent their name and prestige of their office to fundraising events for conservative organizations. These activities are expressly prohibited by the Code of Conduct that governs all federal jurists. The Code contains both general and specific ethical rules for all federal judges–except the nine members of the Supreme Court.
The Chief Justice maintains that in spite of their exemption, “All members of the Court do in fact consult the Code of Conduct in assessing their ethical obligations.” But the record shows that while some of them may consult it, they apparently don’t feel compelled to actually follow it. That’s’ why reformers are calling on the Court to agree to be formally bound by its provisions.