Chief Justice Roberts bats for judicial independence in annual year-end report
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Chief Justice Roberts bats for judicial independence in annual year-end report

In his 2021 year-end report, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts stressed the importance of ensuring the federal judiciary retains its institutional independence.

Speaking on the constitutional importance of the Court’s ability to self govern and institute reforms of its own accord without undue Congressional influence, he wrote:

The judiciary’s power to manage its internal affairs insulates courts from inappropriate political influence and is crucial to preserving public trust in its work as a separate and coequal branch of government … self-governing bodies of judges from the front lines are in the best position to study and solve—and to work in partnership with Congress in the event change in the law is necessary.”

The report addressed concerns of judicial ethics brought to the fore by a September 2021 Wall Street Journal (WSJ) investigation, which reported that between 2010 and 2018, 131 federal judges violated federal conflict-of-interest law 28 U.S.C. §455 by participating in 685 cases involving companies in which either they or their family members owned shares.

While noting that the 685 recorded cases statistically amounted to less than three hundredths of one percent of the total 2.5 million civil cases litigated during that time, Chief Justice Roberts affirmed the need for more rigorous ethics training programs, among other preventative measures.

The WSJ investigation prompted the House of Representatives to pass the Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act by an overwhelming majority, and with bipartisan support. The Act would require federal judges, excluding judges of the Supreme Court, to disclose stock sales and purchases in sums greater than $1,000 within 45 days of the transaction. 

The report also discussed the judiciary’s plans with respect to ensuring the adequacy of mechanisms aimed at preventing such issues of public concern sexual harassment and conflict-of-interest detection.

While the report noted that sexual harassment was not pervasive in the federal judiciary, the Judicial Conference accepted the recommendations of the Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group to revise codes of conduct, increase training, and strengthen and streamline internal procedures for identifying and correcting misconduct. 

On better detection of conflict-of-interest, Chief Justice Roberts stated that the Administrative Office along with the committees of Judicial Conference have begun:

a review of the current case-management software to improve automated detection of potential conflicts … [and] to enhance the ethics training and refresher courses to ensure that judges are both aware of their obligations and know how to use the conflict-checking tools effectively.

The Biden-appointed Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court, which submitted its draft final report last month, received no mention in the Chief Justice’s annual report.