Chief Justice Roberts calls for better enforcement of conflict laws involving judges’ stock ownership

WASHINGTON —

Federal courts need to do much better at enforcing conflict-of-interest laws that are supposed to prevent judges from deciding cases in which they hold stock, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said in his year-end report on the judiciary.

He was responding in September to a Wall Street Journal report that showed federal judges participating in 685 cases involving stock-holding companies. Many of them claimed that they didn’t know about stock holdings as a result of their investments being managed by a money manager. The chief justice stated that federal law requires judges not to participate in cases in which they have a financial interest.

“Let me make it clear: The Judiciary treats this matter seriously. He wrote that judges must adhere to the highest standards and that judges who violated ethics rules were not allowed to be judge.”

” We are obliged to work for 100% compliance, because trust in the public is fundamental, not an incidental part of our function,” he said. “Individually, judges must be scrupulously attentive to both the letter and spirit of our rules, as most are.”

He said “professed ignorance of the ethics rule” or the failure of computer software designed to prevent such conflicts were no excuse. A computer program alerts judges when a case involves a company they own stock in. If a subsidiary of a larger company is involved, the software may allow a relevant company to slip by.

Roberts said that may explain some lapses, but not for judges who had multiple violations. They believe that “inadequate ethics training …. is a greater problem than the lapses.” Therefore, they recommend that ethics training programs be more rigorous. This means more consultations, webinars, class time, and classroom time. It also requires more attention to promoting compliance, even though busy dockets keep judicial schedules full,” he stated.

He pointed out, however, that ethical violations seem to be very rare. He said that 685 violations accounted for less than 34 of the 2.5 million civil cases that federal district courts handled in the nine years under review. “That’s a 99. compliance rate.” 97% compliance rate,” he said.

Moreover, he said the newspaper story did not report that “the judge’s actions in any of those cases — often just routine docket management — actually financially benefited the judge.”

The chief justice said the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts is working on improving technology and training to deal with the problem.

Judges are not prohibited from owning direct shares of stock. They are not required to step aside if their shares are indirectly held in mutual funds.

He didn’t suggest penalizing repeat violators. Federal judges decide when they should step aside from a case. Roberts is the chief justice of the federal judiciary.

Roberts received the highest job approval rating of 11 U.S. leaders in a Gallup poll taken in early December and released earlier this week, with 60% approving of how he is handling his role.

Only two other leaders received positive job approval ratings from a majority of Americans surveyed: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell (53%) and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to President Biden (52%).

Roberts was the only leader who received majority approval from both Republicans (57%) and Democrats (52%).

He did better than elected leaders in the poll. Biden was approved by 43%, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) by 40% and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) by 34%.

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