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In a year-end report, Chief Justice John Roberts emphasizes judicial ethics

Chief Justice John Roberts listens as President Biden addresses a joint session of Congress on April 28.
Melina Mara
Pool/Getty Images
Chief Justice John Roberts listens as President Biden addresses a joint session of Congress on April 28.

U.S. courts need to do more to ensure compliance with ethics rules — including rules that preclude a judge from presiding over cases in which he or she has a financial interest, Chief Justice John Roberts says in a year-end report on the federal judiciary.

Roberts was responding, in part, to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal which found that between 2010 and 2018, 131 federal judges ruled in cases involving companies in which they or their families owned shares of stock.

Roberts said that while those amount to "less than three hundredths of one percent of the 2.5 million civil cases filed in the district courts" during that period, the federal judiciary must take the matter seriously.

"We are duty-bound to strive for 100% compliance because public trust is essential, not incidental, to our function," he wrote.

Roberts noted that the Journal did not report any occasions in which a judge acted in a way that financially benefited him- or herself. The chief justice proposed increased training and updated technology systems to improve compliance with the ethics policies.

The year-end report comes at a time of intense scrutiny of the Supreme Court and federal judiciary as a whole

A record 53% of Americans disapprove of the way the Supreme Court is handling its job, according to a September Gallup poll. And 57% of Americans believe that the Supreme Court is either "too liberal" or "too conservative."

The public's view of the court has long been among Roberts' central concerns as the nation's top judiciary officer.

In 2018, after a federal judge issued a ruling that drew the ire of then-President Donald Trump, Trump responded on Twitter, saying "that's not law" and "this was an Obama judge."

Roberts responded to the president in a statement, writing that the United States does not have "Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for."

Time will tell whether and how many Americans continue to agree with Roberts' characterization of the courts. This term, the Supreme Court's 6-3 conservative majority — of which Roberts is a member — has taken up a number of divisive, highly partisan issues including abortion access, gun rights and religious freedom cases.

How the Supreme Court chooses to rule in the highly watched cases, and how broadly those rulings apply, is likely to have a sizable impact on the court's reputation in the coming year.

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Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.