The chief justice of the Supreme Court, in his year-end report, called on federal judges to work hard to adhere to ethics rules after more than 100 were caught violating a rule that requires judges to recuse themselves in any matter in which they have a personal financial interest.
Chief Justice John Roberts cited (pdf) a Wall Street Journal investigation that uncovered violations by 131 federal judges across 685 cases between 2010 and 2018. The George W. Bush appointee portrayed the number of violations as small, noting that they represented less than 0.03 percent of the 2.5 million civil cases filed in the district courts during the years studied.
“Let me be crystal clear: the Judiciary takes this matter seriously. We expect judges to adhere to the highest standards, and those judges violated an ethics rule. But I do want to put these lapses in context,” Roberts said.
The wording drew a response by James Grimaldi, one of the Journal investigators, who said his team investigated tens of thousands of cases, not 2.5 million.
“The Journal’s initial tally was an undercount; it was impossible because of the peculiarities of the judiciary’s financial-disclosure process and incomplete information available on case litigants,” Grimaldi wrote on Twitter, noting that although Roberts’s comment “is technically accurate, the suggestion that we could review millions of cases is misleading.”
The Journal stated on Dec. 31, 2021, that subsequent reporting raised the tally to at least 950 violations.
Roberts also pointed out that most of the judges involved only had one or two identified violations, painting those instances as likely “unintentional oversights,” while singling out judges who had more violations or said they didn’t know about the ethics rule. Each judge is schooled on ethical duties, according to Roberts.
“This context is [no] excuse,” he said. “We are duty-bound to strive for 100% compliance because public trust is essential, not incidental, to our function. Individually, judges must be scrupulously attentive to both the letter and spirit of our rules, as most are. Collectively, our ethics training programs need to be more rigorous. That means more classtime, webinars, and consultations. But it also requires greater attention to promoting a culture of compliance, even when busy dockets keep judicial calendars full.”
Roberts proposed utilizing technology to check whether stocks held by judges and litigants would raise questions, floating the possibility of obtaining fresh funding from Congress for that purpose. He also said top federal legal experts are already working on addressing the problem, including enhancing the ethics training and refresher courses.
Roberts pens a year-end report annually. In 2020, he praised how federal courts performed during the COVID-19 pandemic.