The U.S. Supreme Court’s legitimacy is under the microscope again this week with the publication of a whistleblower’s complaint against Chief Justice John Roberts by the The New York Times. At issue is the work of Roberts’ wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts, as a high-powered headhunter for lawyers, and the work she’s done placing lawyers in firms that have significant Supreme Court litigation.
Kendal Price, a 66-year-old Boston lawyer, wrote to the Justice Department and Senate Judiciary Committee in December of last year in a letter obtained by The New York Times arguing that the justices should be held to a higher standard of transparency when it comes to the work of their spouses and their financial stake in the court’s business. “I do believe that litigants in U.S. courts, and especially the Supreme Court, deserve to know if their judges’ households are receiving six-figure payments from the law firms,” Price wrote.
He accuses John Roberts of failing to disclose the full extent of his wife’s work, and in financial disclosures presents her as a salaried employee of her current firm rather than a partner who receives commissions from the firms she’s helping. Jane Roberts is now managing partner at the Washington, D.C., office of Macrae, a firm that exists for the purpose of placing high-powered attorneys with high-powered firms.
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She had previously worked with Price as legal recruiters for Major Lindsey & Africa before Price was fired in 2013. Along with his letter, Price submitted a complaint, obtained by Politico, that includes a partial transcript of testimony from Jane Roberts in an arbitration hearing brought by Price after he was fired.
In that testimony, Roberts noted that she has helped powerful officials, in agencies with cases in front of the Supreme Court. “A significant portion of my practice on the partner side is with senior government lawyers, ranging from U.S. attorneys, cabinet officials, former senators, chairmen of federal commissions, general counsel of federal commissions, and then senior political appointees within the ranks of various agencies, and I—they come to me looking to transition to the private sector,” Jane Roberts said it the 2015 arbitration hearing. She boasted in that testimony, “Successful people have successful friends.”
Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman filed an analysis along with Price’s complaint, writing that “it is plausible that the Chief Justice’s spouse may have leveraged the ‘prestige of judicial office’ to meaningfully raise their household income.” Given her boasting in that testimony, yeah, that’s definitely a possibility.
“That concern, together with the failure of the Chief Justice to recuse himself in cases where his spouse received compensation from law firms arguing cases before the Court, or at least advise the parties of his spouse’s financial arrangements with law firms arguing before the Court, threaten the public’s trust in the federal judiciary, and the Supreme Court itself,” Gershman wrote.
Price filed a sworn affidavit with the letter and complaint, saying that he had been told that “Roberts was the company’s highest-earning recruiter and that her early significant commissions, going to someone with so little recruiting experience, represented a ‘stark anomaly’ compared to the rest of the field.”
He told Politico he filed the complaint because the “national controversy and debate regarding the integrity of the Supreme Court demanded that I no longer keep silent about the information I possessed, regardless of the impact such disclosures might have upon me professionally and personally.”
“Not sharing it with the appropriate authorities for purposes of enabling them to investigate weighed on me increasingly, and I felt obligated to make this contribution to this important national conversation.”
Price’s attorney, Joshua Dratel, cited Price’s frustration that there remains no official mechanism for bringing ethics concerns at the court, and the fact that the court sets its own rules and individual justices can choose to abide by them or not—they are not bound by the code of ethics to which all other federal judges are subject.
“The importance of this issue and the unavailability of any viable means of addressing this is what led to us sending it to the places that we sent it to,” Dratel told Politico. “This is a gap in transparency that’s only become more critical in the past year in terms of the impact that it has on the integrity of our institutions.”
That would include Supreme Court spouse Ginni Thomas’ backing of efforts to overthrow the U.S. government and Justice Samuel Alito’s alleged coziness with far-right anti-abortion groups and alleged leaking of the court’s decisions ahead of the court handing them down.
Price points to one specific client of Jane Roberts at Major Lindsey, former Interior secretary and congressman Kenneth Salazar. Price calculates that Jane Roberts received about $350,000 for placing Salazar at prominent D.C.-based WilmerHale in 2013. “WilmerHale maintains a significant practice before the Supreme Court,” Politico reports, “and between 2013 and 2017, argued more cases before the court than any other law firm, according to data from SCOTUSBlog cited in the complaint.”
So that’s nice for them all.
Gershman argues on behalf of Price that John Roberts should recuse himself from all the cases in which the lawyers involved have “made substantial payments to his household or ‘fully disclose’ such payments to counsel and seek a waiver by the litigants.” Which seems a perfectly legitimate ask. Also, he says, John Roberts should be required to report Jane Roberts’ income for real, with the commissions she’s receiving as well as any base salary. Which seems pretty straightforward as well.
Sen. Dick Durbin didn’t say whether he is intending to hold hearings to examine the Price’s allegations. He did say that this is further evidence that the court needs to step up its ethics game.
“This complaint raises troubling issues that once again demonstrate the need for a mandatory code of conduct for Supreme Court justices,” Durbin’s statement said. “We must work on a bipartisan basis to pass Sen. [Chris] Murphy’s bill, the Supreme Court Ethics Act, which would simply require Supreme Court justices to adhere to the same standard of ethics as other federally appointed judges. Passing this requirement is a common sense step that would help begin the process of restoring faith in the Supreme Court.”