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Chief Justice Roberts on Supreme Court Ethics: We've Got This

By Robyn Hagan Cain on January 05, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

While you were chilling the champagne and prepping your party hat Saturday night, Chief Justice John Roberts was steeling himself for the publication of his 2011 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary.

In light of the many calls for recusals during 2011, particularly in the individual mandate litigation, the theme of this year's report was Supreme Court ethics.

Justice Roberts' take on the issue: Pipe down. We've got this.

After discussing the history of high ethical standards among federal jurists, and explaining why the Supreme Court "has no reason to adopt the [Judicial Conference] Code of Conduct as its definitive source of ethical guidance," Chief Justice Roberts attempted to assure readers of his "complete confidence" in his colleagues' abilities to decide when recusal is warranted, stating, "They are jurists of exceptional integrity and experience whose character and fitness have been examined through a rigorous appointment and confirmation process."

(Sidebar: Has Chief Justice Roberts been reading this blog? We made the same point in November. Not that the C.J. is taking his end-of-year memo ideas from our blog.)

Furthermore, Roberts argued that justices should be discriminating in recusals. "A Justice cannot withdraw from a case as a matter of convenience or simply to avoid controversy. Rather, each Justice has an obligation to the Court to be sure of the need to recuse before deciding to withdraw from a case."

The Chief reminded those who aren't persuaded by his letter -- and want Congressional intervention or regulation in Supreme Court ethics -- that Congress does not have explicit authority to regulate the Court. Citing Congressionally-mandated financial reporting and recusal requirements, Chief Justice Roberts noted that Supreme Court Justices may comply with Congress' wishes, but their obligation to do so has never been tested.

What do you think? Is there any federal authority to which the Supreme Court must answer? Will Chief Justice Roberts' report dissuade Congress from acting on legislation to provide for cameras in the courtroom?

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