Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts said the nation’s federal courts are doing a better job of policing themselves, which he called essential for the ability of the judicial branch to maintain its independence.
His annual New Year’s Eve report on the federal judiciary came at the end of a year that brought repeated calls for changes in the Supreme Court. A commission appointed by President Joe Biden explored adding more justices or limiting the length of their terms, as the court became the most conservative in nearly a century.
The latest Gallup poll showed only 40 percent approval of the court’s performance, down 20 points from two decades ago and a new low for that survey.
The current court term is loaded with highly charged cases, including a direct assault on Roe v. Wade and challenges to the Biden administration’s efforts to impose vaccine or mask-wearing and testing requirements for large employers and health care workers to control the spread of Covid. The court will hear the pandemic-related cases in a special session January 7.
Roberts did not mention any of those factors. But he said the judiciary’s power to manage its own internal affairs “insulates courts from inappropriate political influence and is crucial to preserving public trust in its work as a separate and co-equal branch of government.”
The chief justice said the federal courts need to do a better job at spotting potential conflicts that should require judges to take themselves off cases involving companies in which they or members of their families own stock. He noted that a recent Wall Street Journal analysis found that 131 judges participated in 685 such matters between 2010 and 2018.
“The judiciary needs to take this matter seriously,” he said, though he added that the cases cited by the Journal amounted to less than 0.03 percent of the total federal civil caseload. He said many likely were the result of unintentional failures in checking for financial conflicts.
Even so, he said, “Our ethics training programs need to be more rigorous.”
Roberts commended the efforts by the federal courts to recognize and deal with inappropriate conduct in federal courthouses. “New protections could help ensure that every court employee enjoys a workplace free from incivility and disrespect,” he said.
Roberts praised one of his predecessors, William Howard Taft, who became chief justice a century ago, eight years after serving a term as US president. “He understood that criticism of the courts is inevitable, and he lived through an era when federal courts faced strident calls for reform, some warranted and some not,” he said.
Pete Williams is an NBC News correspondent who covers the Justice Department and the Supreme Court, based in Washington.