IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

John Roberts is urged to get the Supreme Court’s house in order

It’s not unreasonable to look to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and ask whether he’s prepared to take steps to get his house in order.


In the wake of ProPublica’s report on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas failing to disclose the gifts and luxury trips he received from a Republican megadonor, some congressional Democrats called for the justice’s resignation, while a few raised the specter of impeachment. But as The Hill reported, they also reached out to the far-right jurist’s powerful colleague.

A group of 16 congressional Democrats asked Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to investigate the luxury trips that Justice Clarence Thomas has accepted from a major Republican donor for more than two decades. Eight senators and eight representatives sent Roberts a letter on Friday to urge him to initiate an investigation into any unethical and “potentially unlawful” conduct that Thomas might have committed. The letter states that the court has “barely acknowledged” the allegations so far.

“We believe that it is your duty as Chief Justice ‘to safeguard public faith in the judiciary,’ and that fulfilling that duty requires swift, thorough, independent and transparent investigation into these allegations,” the letter reads.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a written statement last week, “The Pro Publica report is a call to action, and the Senate Judiciary Committee will act.” On camera, the Illinois Democrat added, “Chief Justice Roberts needs to take the important first step here as the chief justice of the Supreme Court, to restore the integrity of that court with a thorough and credible investigation of what happened with Justice Thomas.”

I’m mindful of the fact that congressional leaders should be cautious about putting all of the responsibility in the chief justice’s hands. After all, lawmakers have oversight authority over the judiciary.

That said, it’s not unreasonable to look to Roberts and ask whether he’s prepared to take steps to get his house in order.

By all appearances, the chief justice cares deeply about the high court’s reputation. As we’ve discussed before, it’s very easy to believe Roberts is sincere in his wishes that Americans perceive the institution as apolitical, led by dispassionate jurists who simply do their best to call balls and strikes without regard for parties or ideological agendas.

But Americans increasingly believe no such thing. In 2021, a national Grinnell College/Selzer poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans agree that politics drives Supreme Court rulings. In fact, the usual partisan divisions were unimportant: Democrats, Republicans and independents all answered the same question in roughly the same way.

“This is a nightmare scenario for Chief Justice John Roberts, who has sought to protect the court’s reputation as an apolitical institution,” Grinnell College National Poll Director Peter Hanson said at the time. “The court faces a public convinced that its decisions are about politics rather than the Constitution.”

A year later, the public’s opinion of the high court sunk even lower, following a series of reactionary, far-right rulings, including the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

What’s more, it’s not just the rulings. With increasing frequency, sitting justices — most notably Samuel Alito — deliver provocative speeches with an unmistakable political bent. When the Federalist Society held an event last fall in celebration of its 40th anniversary, four sitting justices were on hand to lend their support to the unabashedly conservative organization. (Alito declared at the gathering, “Boy, is your work needed today.”)

And it’s against this backdrop that Thomas chose not to be transparent about the benefits of his friendship with real estate magnate Harlan Crow.

Roberts has responded with frustration in recent months to criticisms of the court’s integrity. But if the chief justice is serious about restoring the institution’s credibility, he’ll need to do more than just give assurances about his colleagues’ honor.