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Chief justice: Judges must better avoid financial conflicts

WASHINGTON (AP) — Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts says the federal judiciary should do more to ensure judges do not participate in cases where they have financial conflicts of interest.

Roberts made the comments as part of his annual report on the federal judiciary released Friday night.

Roberts pointed to a series of stories recently in The Wall Street Journal that showed that “between 2010 and 2018, 131 federal judges participated in a total of 685 cases involving companies in which they or their families owned stock.” Federal and Supreme Court judges are required by law to abstain from cases in which they have a personal financial interest.

“Let me be crystal clear: Justice takes this case seriously. We expect judges to hold to the highest standards, and those judges have broken a rule of ethics,” Roberts wrote in the nine-page report.

Roberts is one of only three judges on the nine-member Supreme Court to hold individual shares. Those interests sometimes cause the judges to withdraw from a case or sell stock to participate. The other judges who own individual stocks are Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito. Those holdings have sometimes caused problems in the past.

In 2015, Breyer participated in a high-profile energy lawsuit that involved a subsidiary of Wisconsin-based Johnson Controls Inc. was involved. A routine check in Breyer’s office failed to reveal that his wife owned shares in Johnson Controls. After the matter was discussed, a news media investigation brought the matter to the attention of Breyer and his wife sold 750 shares worth about $33,000.

Alito participated in a television curse words case involving ABC Inc. and other networks were involved. At the time the case was brought up in 2008, Alito owned approximately $2,000 worth of stock in ABC’s parent company, Walt Disney Co. The case came out 5-4 with Alito voting with the majority and against ABC’s interests. He later said that his participation was a mistake.

Roberts did not write about challenges to his own court for financial or other reasons. He did note that in the cases The Wall Street Journal identified, the paper failed to find that any of the conflicts affected the judges’ actions in cases. And Roberts underlined that conflicts were identified in “less than three-hundredths of a percent of the 2.5 million civil cases filed in district courts in the nine years of the study,” a 99.97% compliance rate.

But Roberts said, “We are committed to achieving 100% compliance because public trust is essential and not incidental to our role.”

Roberts said ethics training programs should be more rigorous and that “the information systems that help courts detect and prevent conflicts, among other things, need an overhaul.” He said officials are working to address the issue.

As coronavirus cases mount, Roberts only briefly mentioned the pandemic. Last year, Roberts’ annual report focused on the impact of the pandemic on federal courts, with Roberts praising the work of the judiciary staff during the pandemic.

Roberts and his colleagues are scheduled to return to court on Jan. 7 for a special set of arguments to weigh challenges against two Biden administration policies that cover vaccine requirements for millions of workers. These are policies that affect major employers and health professionals.

Due to the pandemic, the courtroom is not open to the public and only the judges, lawyers, court staff and journalists will be in attendance. The judges spent nearly 19 months hearing arguments over the pandemic over the phone, but returned to the courtroom in October.

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