Chief Justice John Roberts said Tuesday night that he wants to assure the public that the Supreme Court is committed to adhering to the “highest standards of conduct,” appearing to direct his remarks at critics of the high court amid recent ethics controversies.
“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 that are consistent with our status as an independent branch of government under the separation of powers,” Roberts told an audience gathered in Washington, DC, for an event hosted by the American Law Institute, where he received a medal honoring the late Judge Henry J. Friendly.
The comments from Roberts, a former law clerk of Friendly, come as members of Congress and public interest groups are pressuring the court to adopt a code of ethics directed at the justices, after revelations that Justice Clarence Thomas had accepted lavish trips from a GOP donor and had engaged in private real estate deals without making disclosures on his financial disclosure forms.
Roberts’ speech seemed to suggest that the court may soon have more to say about efforts to increase transparency when it comes to ethics practices. But the chief also appeared to underline his concern that Congress should not get involved with the internal affairs of a separate branch of government. Roberts declined a request last month to testify before Congress in a hearing on Supreme Court ethics.
Roberts also lamented the current state of public discourse Tuesday night, referencing a recent event where a judge was heckled during an appearance at a law school and that protesters outside the homes of the justices have necessitated 24/7 protection.
Roberts said the “hardest decision” he has had to make over the last 18 years was whether to “erect fences and barricades around the Supreme Court.” The fencing came down before the start of the current term.
“Inside the court,” however, there is “cause for optimism,” he said, reiterating that the justices have never raised their voices in anger during their private conferences.
“We deal with some of the most controversial issues in the country, yet we maintain collegial relations with each other,” he said.
Roberts’ appearance comes as the justices have entered the most tense time of the year as they race to finish opinions by a self-set end of June deadline. The most difficult cases are often left for the end, and the justices are deliberating over issues such as affirmative action, voting rights and religious liberty.
The court is additionally still reeling from the drama of last term, when a draft of the landmark opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked to the press – an event that would trigger protests across the country and a leak investigation at the high court. The investigation has so far failed to yield any results.