WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John Roberts, the head of the embattled Supreme Court, said Tuesday night that the toughest appeal he’s made in 18 years on the job was ordering that a fence be erected around the building last year after the ruling that rolled back abortion rights was leaked.
Roberts appeared defensive about the tribunal’s reputation as he spoke to the American Law Institute, a legal group, amid questions about the tribunal’s legitimacy and calls for ethics reform.
“The hardest decision I had to make was whether or not to erect fences and barricades around the Supreme Court. I had no choice but to go ahead and do it,” Roberts said.
The fences were erected in May 2022 as part of heightened security measures following the leak and angry protests over the then-pending abortion ruling. The barricades added to the sense that the court was a beleaguered institution.
The following month, the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, overturned Roe v. Wade’s 1973 which established a constitutional right to abortion, although Roberts himself did not join the five other conservatives who voted to do so.
While in court, Roberts was a key figure in cases that restricted voting rights, expanded gun rights and upheld the Obamacare health care law.
In his brief speech Tuesday, Roberts lamented public criticism of the judiciary, including protests outside judges’ homes, and appeared to take issue with Congress legislating ethics reform for the court. following recent stories about conservative judge Clarence Thomas.
But Roberts, indicating legislation was not needed, also said he believed the court could make its own reforms and hold to the highest standards so there was no need for a stalemate. with Congress.
“I want to make sure that the people I engage with make sure that we as a tribunal are upholding the highest standards of conduct. We continue to look at the things we can do to deliver on that commitment,” he said.
Lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require judges to adhere to a code of ethical conduct similar to that which binds other federal judges. Roberts declined an invitation to testify on the issue, with the nine justices signing a statement of ethical principles that has been heavily criticized by legal experts and Democrats.
Some legal experts have suggested that any effort by Congress to legislate ethics would unconstitutionally violate the Supreme Court’s status as a separate branch of government, though the court has taken similar steps in the past.
Roberts added that the judges remained on good terms, saying “there were never any angry voices” in private meetings.
Liberal Justice Elena Kagan introduced Roberts at the event, where he received an award, praising his ability to write persuasively on complex legal issues. But she added, in a reference to divisions on the pitch, that there were a lot of other “I’m tearing my hair out” issues.
The court is about to begin the home stretch of its current term, which ends at the end of June. Major rulings on a variety of issues, including affirmative action in college admissions and the Biden administrations’ attempt to write off student loan debt, will be made in the coming weeks.