John Roberts, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, says in a year-end report that he has "complete confidence" that federal judges behave in an ethical fashion. One prominent legal journalist calls the Roberts report a "whitewash." We would call it a sign that Roberts is living on Fantasy Island. More importantly, it's a sign that oversight is needed in courts because judges clearly cannot be trusted to police themselves.
Roberts' report comes at the end of a year marked by questions about the ethical standards that apply to federal judges, including those on the nation's highest court. Critics have argued that at least two justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan, have conflicts that should force them to step down from hearing any constitutional challenges to President Obama's health-care law. But we've seen no sign that either justice will recuse him or herself-- and in our current system, such decisions are left up to the judge.
Questions related to Obamacare only skim the surface of ethical problems with the federal judiciary. We have shown that Bush-era political prosecutions, such as those involving former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman and Mississippi attorney Paul Minor, were enabled by numerous unlawful rulings from federal trial-court judges. We also have shown that federal appellate judges unlawfully upheld those rulings, apparently more interested in protecting their judicial brethren than in ensuring that the law is applied correctly and fairly.
In my own legal world, 2011 was filled with examples of federal district judges ruling contrary to law on matters that are clear and simple--and with judges from the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta mostly upholding findings that are contrary to long-standing precedent. In the first few months of 2012, I will be presenting ample evidence from my own legal battles that show our federal courts are infested with corruption.
A key issue in my experience has been discovery. Specifically, federal judges have repeatedly allowed opposing parties to get away with not turning over relevant documents in discovery--or in one case, a federal judge actually ruled on summary judgment when no discovery had been conducted in the case at all. That simply cannot be done under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, but an 83-year-old Reagan appointee did it anyway. We encourage you to stay tuned in 2012 for indisputable evidence that our federal courts are a cesspool.
So how does John Roberts reach his conclusion that all is hunky-dory in our federal courts? Answer: He's trying to protect his turf, and he isn't interested in making sure courts actually serve the public and uphold the law. Andrew Kreig, a journalist, lawyer, and director of the D.C.-based Justice Integrity Project, puts it in stark terms:
The federal courts function honestly, according to the annual report on the federal judiciary that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts issued Dec. 31 in the middle of the New Year's holiday weekend. Noting at the outset the disgrace that bribery brought to baseball in 1919, Roberts said the federal judiciary needs no reforms because its members seek to address their duties in an ethical manner. Roberts said he had "complete confidence" in the integrity of judges, including his colleagues on the Supreme Court. As chief justice, Roberts presides over both the nine-member Supreme Court and the administrative office of the federal judiciary. His report focused heavily on the need for public confidence in the judiciary. But he recommended nothing more than what he called continued self-discipline by judges.
"Whitewash" is the most obvious description of the Roberts report by those of us documenting flagrant abuses of the public interest by judges. Our Justice Integrity Project, among many others, has documented judges who have been enriched or otherwise co-opted by benefactors and political allies, while protected by cronies and toadies.
Kreig even hints that Roberts released his report late on New Year's Eve so that it would largely slip under the radar of the mainstream media:
The Roberts report was released at 6 p.m. Saturday night on Dec. 31, thus guaranteeing minimal attention from the public aside from those reporters provided advance copies
What does it tell us that John Roberts has confidence in the system he oversees? Absolutely nothing, of course. Roberts' confidence in the system is not the issue. The issue is this: Should the American public have confidence in the federal judiciary? The answer is no.
What might make a difference? Kreig offers a suggestion:
Reform is simple: Oversight hearings by the House Judiciary Committee, with aggressive investigation by the FBI of corruption complaints against dishonest federal judges, whether high or low, Democrat or Republican. Little scrutiny exists currently except for the most obvious crimes.
The Los Angeles Times was one of the few mainstream news outlets that picked up on the Roberts report. The Times makes clear that Roberts wants no part of any serious reforms:
The chief justice gently batted aside several suggestions for change. He said the justices as a group have not and should not review a decision by one of their colleagues on whether to drop out of case. Such a policy “would create an undesirable situation in which the court could affect the outcome of a case by selecting who among its members may participate,” he wrote.
He also noted the high cost of one justice stepping aside.
If one of the nine justices were to withdraw from the healthcare case, the outcome could be a 4-4 tie vote. That would leave the law in a muddle because the healthcare’s individual mandate has been deemed unconstitutional in one regional circuit and upheld in another. A justice cannot withdraw from a case “as a matter of convenience or simply to avoid controversy,” Roberts wrote.
In the end, Roberts sounds like a mafioso, instructing others to stay off his turf:
The chief justice also warned Congress to keep its distance. Twice, he cast doubt on whether lawmakers can impose an ethics rules on the high court, a separate branch of government. While the justices choose to abide by the current ethics rules, he said, “the limits of Congress’s power to require [them] have never been tested.”
Under the current system, John Roberts and his colleagues in the federal judiciary answer to no one. And they want to keep it that way.