Chief Justice John Roberts: Judges need to be better at avoiding financial conflicts

WASHINGTON (AP) – Supreme Court Justice John Roberts says the federal judiciary needs to do more to ensure judges do not get involved in cases where they have financial conflicts of interest.

Roberts made the comments as part of his annual report about the federal judiciary released Friday night.

Roberts pointed to a series of stories recently in The Wall Street Journal that found that “between 2010 and 2018, 131 federal judges participated in a total of 685 cases involving companies in which they or their families owned shares.” Federal judges and Supreme Court justices are required by law to waive cases in which they have a personal financial interest.

“Let me be crystal clear: the judiciary takes this case seriously. We expect judges to adhere to the highest standards, and these judges violated a code of ethics,” Roberts wrote in the nine-page report.

Roberts is one of just three judges in the nine-member Supreme Court holding individual shares. These holdings sometimes result in judges withdrawing from a case or selling shares to participate. The other judges owning individual shares are Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito. In the past, these possessions have occasionally resulted in problems.

In 2015, Breyer participated in a high-profile energy case involving a subsidiary of Wisconsin-based Johnson Controls Inc. A routine check performed by Breyer’s office failed to indicate that his wife owned shares in Johnson Controls. After the case was brought up, a query from the news media Breyer brought to the attention of the problem, and his wife sold 750 shares worth about $ 33,000.

Alito was involved in a TV curse case involving ABC Inc. and other networks. At the time the lawsuit was filed in 2008, Alito owned about $ 2,000 in shares of ABC’s parent company, Walt Disney Co. The case came out 5-4, where Alito voted with the majority and against ABC’s interests. He later said his participation was an oversight.

Roberts did not write about the denial of his own court for financial or other reasons. He noted that in the cases identified by The Wall Street Journal, the newspaper did not find that any of the conflicts affected the judges’ actions in cases. And Roberts stressed that conflicts were identified in “less than three hundredths of a percent of the 2.5 million civil cases filed in district courts in the nine years included in the study,” a compliance rate of 99.97% .

But Roberts said: “We are committed to striving for 100% compliance because public trust is crucial, not random, to our function.”

Roberts said ethical training programs need to be more stringent and that “information systems that help the courts catch and prevent conflicts need to be refreshed,” among other things. He said officials are working to resolve the issue.

While coronavirus cases are on the rise, Roberts mentioned the pandemic only briefly. Last year, Roberts’ annual report focused on the impact of the pandemic on federal courts, with Roberts commends the work of the judiciary during the pandemic.

Roberts and his colleagues are scheduled to return to court on Jan. 7 for a special set of arguments to weigh the challenges of two Biden administration policies covering vaccine requirements for millions of workers. The cases involve policies that affect large employers and healthcare professionals.

Due to the pandemic, the courtroom is not open to the public and only judges, lawyers, court staff and journalists will be present. The judges spent nearly 19 months hearing arguments over the phone due to the pandemic, however returned to court in October.

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