Chief Justice Roberts reminds federal judiciary of ethical standards

In his year-end report, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts highlighted the need for “more rigorous” ethics training for the federal judiciary and possibly additional funding from Congress to prevent judges from presiding over cases in which they have a conflict of interest.

Roberts referred to a series of articles printed in the Wall Street Journal in 2021 that reviewed nine years of court filings and found 131 federal judges participating in matters that involved companies in which they or their families owned shares of stock. Although Roberts maintained that the 685 instances detailed in the articles were a “very small fraction” of the 2.5 million civil cases filed in the district courts during those nine years, he still noted the ethical lapses must be addressed.

“Let me be crystal clear: the Judiciary takes this matter seriously,” Roberts wrote in his 2021 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. “We expect judges to adhere to the highest standards, and those judges violated an ethics rule.”

Roberts called for more class time, webinars and consultations on ethics training as well as paying more attention to a culture of compliance. He also pointed to the need to refresh the computer systems that help courts catch and prevent conflicts.

“They need to be refined to ensure that different ways of spelling or listing the same stock holding — such as by company name, subsidiary, or ticker symbol — are picked up by automated checks regardless of how they are identified by a litigant or judge,” Roberts wrote. “This refresh may require additional funding from Congress, but it will be money well spent.”

Roberts also used his report to provide an update on the status of the continuing efforts to address the “inappropriate behavior in the judicial workplace.” In addition, in response to concerns from Congress, he noted the court is reviewing the filing procedures that might enable plaintiffs to select the judge they want to hear the case.

In the appendix of the report, Roberts gave a review of the federal courts’ workload. Overall, the courts have reported a decrease in filings for the 12-month period that ended September 30, 2021.

The U.S. Supreme Court noted a decrease in the total number of cases filed, falling to 5,307 filings in the 2020 term from 5,411 in the 2019 term. However, during the 2020 term, 72 cases were argued and 69 were disposed of in 55 signed opinions during the 2020 term which is almost equal to the 73 cases argued and 69 disposed of in 53 signed opinions in the 2019 term.

The Federal Courts of Appeals also saw a decrease of 8% in filings, falling from 48,190 to 44,546 in 2021. Total civil appeals dropped 9% to 23,256 while criminal appeals rose 10% to 10,625 and bankruptcy appeals jumped 18% to 733.

Likewise, the district courts docketed 344,567 civil cases, a 27% decrease from the prior year. The drop was driven by an unusually large number of filings associated with an earplug products liability multidistrict litigation centralized in the Northern District of Florida. Excluding those MDL filings, the total civil case filing fell just 3% in 2021.

Bankruptcy courts continued to record a drop in filings attributed to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic which included a drop in personal spending, increase in government benefits and moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures. In 2021, the bankruptcy courts docketed 434,540 new filings, representing a 29% reduction from 2020 and a 44% reduction from the year that ended Sept. 30, 2019.

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