January 2, 2024
Roberts Takes Strategic Tiptoe Around Supreme Court’s Ethical Quandaries in Annual Update
The annual report released by Supreme Court Justice John Roberts offers a review of the court's activity from the past year, but it was the discussion on ethics that sidestepped controversy and scrutiny. Roberts wrote that he is “proud of the Court’s commitment to ethical standards” in the report, but he provided few details about specific ethics issues that the court has had to face in recent years.
For example, Roberts discussed the Supreme Court's response to the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, noting that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed to head a commission to look into Rehnquist's legacy and contributions to the court. However, Roberts mentioned nothing of controversial ethical issues that have surrounded Rehnquist and the court in recent years.
The report also failed to mention the recent spate of ethical complaints filed against certain justices for their potential conflicts of interest, including complaints against Justice Clarence Thomas, who has been accused of acting improperly during his wife's dealings with conservative think tanks.
Justice Roberts' decision to avoid discussing the court's ethical issues may have been intentional. The Supreme Court is supposed to remain a neutral arbiter in the eyes of the public, and discussing ethics issues in the report may raise questions about the court's impartiality and fairness. Additionally, Chief Justice Roberts himself has been the target of criticism for how he has handled ethics complaints in the past.
Regardless, the fact that Justice Roberts chose to skirt around some of the more controversial ethics issues in the court's annual report reflects the court's desire to maintain its reputation as an impartial and apolitical institution. Although the court maybe faced with legal and ethical issues in the future, Roberts' report suggests that the Supreme Court is content to remain silent.