Washington — Chief Justice John Roberts said Tuesday that there is more the Supreme Court can do to “adhere to the highest standards” of ethical conduct, an acknowledgment that recent reporting about the justices’ ethical missteps is having an effect on public perception of the court.
Speaking at a law dinner where he was honored with an award, Roberts provided no specifics but said the justices “are continuing to look at the things we can do to give practical effect to that commitment.”
He said he is “confident there are ways to do that consistent with our status as an independent branch of government and the Constitution’s separation of powers.”
The court has resisted adopting an ethics code of its own, and Roberts has raised questions about whether Congress could impose a code of conduct on the court.
All nine justices recently signed a statement of ethics that Roberts provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee. His remarks Tuesday suggested he knows that statement is not enough to quiet critics, and Democrats have continued to call on the court to establish a binding code of conduct for itself.
Several legislative proposals have been introduced in the House and Senate that would require ethical standards to be set for the court’s members, instituted either by an outside entity such as the Judicial Conference, which sets policy for the federal courts, or by the Supreme Court itself.
The chief justice’s remarks follow a series of stories, mainly by the investigative news site ProPublica, that have detailed lavish trips and other gifts provided to Justice Clarence Thomas by Republican megadonor Harlan Crow. ProPublica also revealed Crow purchased three properties belonging to the justice and his family, and paid for two years of tuition at private schools for Thomas’ grandnephew, which the justice did not disclose on financial disclosure forms.
Democrats have used the revelations to call for stronger ethics rules for the Supreme Court, and the Democratic-controlled Senate has held two hearings on ethics issues in recent weeks. Republicans have defended Thomas, arguing the focus on his ties to Crow are part of a campaign to delegitimize the court following controversial rulings on abortion, the Second Amendment and climate change.
Roberts, who has led the court since 2005, also said the hardest decision he has made as chief justice was to keep protesters away from the court last year, in the wake of the leak of the draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade.
“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,” he said at the American Law Institute dinner in Washington, where he was introduced by Justice Elena Kagan.
The fencing was removed before the court’s new term began in October.
Roberts also decried recent protests against members of the federal judiciary, referencing an incident at Stanford Law School in which students shouted down federal appeals court Judge Kyle Duncan and demonstrations outside the homes of the conservative Supreme Court justices, which prompted Attorney General Merrick Garland to direct the U.S. Marshals Service to provide around-the-clock protection.
Still, he said despite the political climate outside the Supreme Court, inside the building “there’s cause for optimism.”
“I am happy that I can continue to say there has never been a voice raised in anger in our conference room,” Roberts said. “Our court consists of nine appointees by four presidents. We deal with some of the most controversial issues before the country, yet we maintain collegial relations with each other.”