Wife of Chief Justice Causes Latest Ethics Concerns at US Supreme Court

“It’s clear that the ultraconservative justices in particular cannot be trusted to hold themselves to the same ethical standard as other federal judges,” said one advocate, calling for congressional action.

By Jessica Corbett.  Published 1-31-2023 by Common Dreams

Swearing in of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Photo: White House

Fresh calls for federal lawmakers to pass new ethics rules for the U.S. Supreme Court mounted after The New York Times on Tuesday revealed that a former colleague of Chief Justice John Roberts’ wife raised concerns to Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice.

After her husband joined the nation’s top court, Jane Sullivan Roberts left her job as a law firm partner to work as a legal recruiter. Though Roberts is now the managing partner of the Washington office of Macrae Inc., she and Kendal Price, the author of a letter obtained by the Times, worked as recruiters for the global firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.

In his letter, Price “argued that the justices should be required to disclose more information about their spouses’ work,” the newspaper reported. “He did not cite specific Supreme Court decisions, but said he was worried that a financial relationship with law firms arguing before the court could affect justices’ impartiality or at least give the appearance of doing so.”

As the Times detailed:

According to the letter, Mr. Price was fired in 2013 and sued the firm, as well as Mrs. Roberts and another executive, over his dismissal.

He lost the case, but the litigation produced documents that he sent to Congress and the Justice Department, including spreadsheets showing commissions attributed to Mrs. Roberts early in her headhunting career, from 2007 to 2014. Mrs. Roberts, according to a 2015 deposition in the case, said that a significant portion of her practice was devoted to helping senior government lawyers land jobs at law firms and that the candidates’ names were almost never disclosed.

Patricia McCabe, a spokesperson for the Supreme Court, told the paper that all the justices were “attentive to ethical constraints” and complied with financial disclosure laws, and that the chief justice and his wife had consulted the code of conduct for federal judges.

The reporting comes after Justice Clarence Thomas—one of the Supreme Court’s six right-wing members—ignored calls to resign over efforts by his wife, activist Ginni Thomas, to help former President Donald Trump overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. It also follows a September survey showing that U.S. adults’ confidence in the court hit a record low.

“No wonder public trust in the Supreme Court is at an all-time low,” Brett Edkins, managing director of policy and political affairs for Stand Up America, said Tuesday. “Jane Roberts is just the latest Supreme Court spouse to raise questions about potential conflicts of interest and influence peddling before the nation’s highest court.”

Edkins argued that “while she did not join a seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government, as Ginni Thomas did, her actions may nonetheless undermine Chief Justice Roberts’ impartiality when his wife’s clients argue before the court.”

“It’s clear that the ultraconservative justices in particular cannot be trusted to hold themselves to the same ethical standard as other federal judges,” he added. “It’s time for Congress to step up and pass meaningful reforms to fix the Supreme Court, including a code of ethics that would require justices to recuse themselves from cases where they have an actual or apparent conflict of interest.”

In a Tuesday tweet, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), lead sponsor of the Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act, pointed to the reporting as “example #4,394 of why the Supreme Court needs a binding code of ethics.”

Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) did not say how his panel may respond to Price’s letter but told the Times that it raised “troubling issues that once again demonstrate the need” for ethics reforms to “begin the process of restoring faith in the Supreme Court.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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