This week, the New York Times reported that a former colleague of Chief Justice John Roberts’s wife, Jane, is sounding the alarm about her lengthy and lucrative career in legal recruitment, which he says presents ethical conflicts of interest. “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,” Kendal Price wrote in a December letter to Congress and the Justice Department.
Legal recruiters can make serious bank as headhunters, placing high-profile lawyers in firms as partners in return for commissions that can be high as a quarter of the person’s first-year salary. Price and Roberts worked together at the recruiting firm of Major, Lindsey, and Africa until 2013, when he was fired. Price sued, alleging he’d been let go for “raising protected, lawful whistleblower concerns.” Although he lost, during discovery, he obtained spreadsheets listing Roberts’s commissions from from 2007 to 2014. In a deposition, Roberts explained that her work focused on placing senior government lawyers in law firms, and that her placements were “confidential.”
“Successful people have successful friends,” she said.
Supreme Court justices all fill out mandatory financial disclosures, which include income of their family members. Court spokesperson Patricia McCabe came to the defense of Jane Roberts, pointing to a 2009 advisory opinion stating that judges “need not recuse merely because” their spouse works as a recruiter for firms with business before the Court. But Price points out that because Jane Roberts listed her compensation on these forms as salary, instead of spelling out her commissions, her work posed obvious ethical conflicts for the Chief Justice: The Roberts family could be quietly raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from law firms with regular business before the Court. According to Price, Jane Roberts made millions in commissions. Details about which lawyers she placed where—and the money she made for it—would shed more light about the propriety of the Chief recusing himself from certain cases before the Court.
If Supreme Court justices were bound by the existing code of conduct for federal judges, which requires that spouses divulge the sources of income over $1,000, including commissions, Jane Roberts’s conduct here could have been a violation. But the justices are not formally bound by the code. Previously, John Roberts has asserted that the justices have “no reason” to adopt it for themselves.
In the context of the Court’s other ongoing spouse-adjacent ethical scandals, Jane Roberts’s income classification might seem on the tamer side of things. Ginni Thomas, Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife, failed to report nearly $700,000 in income from the conservative Heritage Foundation between 2003 to 2007—a scandal that would likely be a bigger deal if she weren’t better known for backing President Donald Trump’s attempted coup in 2020. Justice Samuel Alito and his wife Martha-Ann, meanwhile, have been accused of leaking a landmark Supreme Court opinion about birth control access to anti-abortion activists in 2014.
But even if Jane Roberts’s work wouldn’t have actually required her husband to recuse, her failure to disclose her income correctly raises questions about why. And right now, the appearance of corruption is just as harmful to a Court that cannot stop itself from stepping on ethical rakes. In his 2021 end-of-the-year report, Chief Justice Roberts noted that the code of conduct requires that “a judge recuse in any matter in which the judge knows of a personal financial interest, no matter how small.” Public confidence in the institution is at an all-time low, and the justices’ unyielding belief that they are above the rules is a major reason why. It would have been so easy for the Robertses to do the right thing here. They simply couldn’t be bothered.