Chief Justice Roberts cites ‘inappropriate political influence’ in year-end report

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts decried what he called “inappropriate political influence” in federal courts in his annual year-end report released on Friday as calls to reform the nation’s highest judicial authority increase along with political criticism.

“Decisional independence is essential to due process, promoting impartial decision-making, free from political or other extraneous influence,” Roberts, who serves as head of the entire federal judiciary, noted in his report on the status of SCOTUS and the 107 federal district and appeals courts around the nation, Fox News reported.

Roberts noted another area of importance: “The Judiciary’s power to manage its 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.”

Appointed chief justice in 2005 by then-President George W. Bush, Roberts’ observations come as the 100th anniversary of the Judicial Conference approaches — “the federal courts’ internal administrative and policy-making body, led by the chief justice and composed of rotating federal judges,” Fox News noted.

Roberts said the conference has honed in on making sure that federal courts run smoothly and effectively amid the ongoing pandemic, as well as cybersecurity threats that he did not specify.

The chief justice also said that the conference was making an effort to reduce ethical lapses and strengthen recusal rules for federal jurists who hear cases in which they may have a financial or personal interest, citing a Wall Street Journal report that detailed some 685 ethics violations regarding 131 judges over a nine-year period of time. Roberts did point out, though, that figure represented a fraction of roughly 2.5 million civil cases that were heard during that time.

Still, Roberts wrote, “Collectively, our ethics training programs need to be more rigorous.”

He went on to propose “new protections” in dealing with cases of what he described as “inappropriate behavior in the judicial workplace,” which included reported instances of sexual harassment by federal judges.

While “criticism of the courts is inevitable,” Roberts noted, he didn’t mention President Biden’s appointed Commission on the Supreme Court, which was staffed by academics and attorneys who were tasked with looking into broad changes regarding the high court, including dramatically expanding the number of justices. Democrats frustrated by the court’s constitutional bent want to increase the number of left-wing justices on the high court to achieve more favorable rulings on political priorities.

The commission has not yet made any formal recommendations but members have looked at expanding the court from its current nine-justice makeup as well as imposing term limits. Fox News reported that White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last month that there isn’t any specified timeframe for the president to examine the panel’s report and findings, adding that few Democrats believe Biden will act on any recommendations, especially in an election year.

Then-President Donald Trump managed to get three justices confirmed to the Supreme Court, bringing to six the number of justices appointed by Republican presidents.

“One of the things that frustrates Democrats and liberals is there’s only been four Democratic appointments to the Supreme Court of the last 53 years, two by Obama and two by Clinton,” Paul Smith, a Georgetown University law professor who has argued before the high court, told Fox News.

In recent years, according to polling, more Americans have developed a negative view of the high court. In September, a Monmouth University survey found that 42 percent approved and 45 percent disapproved, a reversal from five years ago when 49 percent approved versus 33 percent who disapproved.

But at least one of the justices, Clarence Thomas, has blamed that shift on negative coverage from the left-leaning mainstream media.

“I think the media makes it sound as though you are just always going right to your personal preference,” Justice Clarence Thomas said in September. “So if they think you are anti-abortion or something personally, they think that’s the way you always will come out. They think you’re for this or for that. They think you become like a politician. That’s a problem. You’re going to jeopardize any faith in the legal institutions.”

A few days later, Justice Amy Coney Barrett told a forum in Kentucky hosted by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell:  “My goal today is to convince you that this court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks.”

Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito have also spoken out in defense of the court’s integrity in recent months.

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