Jane Roberts, the Supreme Court, and Conflicts of Interest
The Chief Justice's wife is making a lot of money.
Business Insider (“Jane Roberts, who is married to Chief Justice John Roberts, made $10.3 million in commissions from elite law firms, whistleblower documents show“):
Two years after John Roberts’ confirmation as the Supreme Court’s chief justice in 2005, his wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts, made a pivot. After a long and distinguished career as a lawyer, she refashioned herself as a legal recruiter, a matchmaker who pairs job-hunting lawyers up with corporations and firms.
Roberts told a friend that the change was motivated by a desire to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest, given that her husband was now the highest-ranking judge in the country. “There are many paths to the good life,” she said. “There are so many things to do if you’re open to change and opportunity.”
And life was indeed good for the Robertses, at least for the years 2007 to 2014. During that eight-year stretch, according to internal records from her employer, Jane Roberts generated a whopping $10.3 million in commissions, paid out by corporations and law firms for placing high-dollar lawyers with them.
That eye-popping figure comes from records in a whistleblower complaint filed by a disgruntled former colleague of Roberts, who says that as the spouse of the most powerful judge in the United States, the income she earns from law firms who practice before the Court should be subject to public scrutiny.
I know very little about Mrs. Roberts. Her LinkedIn shows an impressive enough path: mathematics degrees from Holy Cross and Brown followed by a 1984 JD from Georgetown after which she clerked for James Sprouse in the 4th Circuit and made partner in a BigLaw firm shortly thereafter. She stayed there for 20 years, leaving to become a partner in the DC recruiting services firm Major, Lindsey, and Africa shortly after her husband became Chief Justice.
She made $10.3 million in commissions over eight years, or $1.3 million a year on average. That’s a lot of money and, according to the above-linked report, was far and away more than anyone else in her position at the firm made. But a January NYT report that I missed when the allegations were first raised notes that “Partners at leading law firms in Washington on average make well over $1 million a year, and at the high end, they can be paid over $7 million.”
Let’s take her at her word that she pivoted from her legal career to the recruiting one to avoid conflicts of interest. On the surface, it certainly seems plausible. On the surface, you wouldn’t think being a headhunter for big law firms would implicate the Supreme Court. And, two decades into a promising professional career, it’s unreasonable to expect that she completely leave the field of law just because her husband is a major player.
That said, as with all power couples, it’s really impossible to disentangle how much one’s success feeds the other’s.
Legal headhunting firms typically receive a share of a partner’s projected compensation as a matchmaking fee. (In other scenarios, like placing lawyers in-house, recruiting firms are often paid a retainer instead of a commission.) A large chunk of that fee is typically paid to the individual recruiters who made the deal happen, and it’s those payments to Jane Roberts that Price criticized.
“She restructured her career to benefit from his [John Roberts’] position,” Price wrote in an affidavit accompanying his complaint. “I believe that at least some of her remarkable success as a recruiter has come because of her spouse’s position.”
Again: while $1.3 million per annum is big money to me, it’s quite possibly considerably less than she was making at Pillsbury.
Mark Jungers, another one of Jane Roberts’ former colleagues, said that Jane was smart, talented, and good at her job. “To my knowledge,” he told Insider, “friends of John were mostly friends of Jane, and while it certainly did not harm her access to top people to have John as her spouse, I never saw her ‘use’ that inappropriately. In fact, I would say that Jane was always very sensitive to the privacy of her family and when she could drop the name or make certain calls, she didn’t.”
I have no reason to believe she acted anything but ethically. But here’s the thing: while she may have fully believed she was recruiting as Jane Sullivan Roberts, super talented former lawyer, and been incredibly scrupulous in not dropping her husband’s name, the big players damned well knew she was Mrs. John Roberts. There’s simply no way to know how much that factored into her success.
Insider spoke with with three legal recruiters who said $10.3 million in commission was a plausible amount for someone with Roberts’ experience and network to have made over those years.
Again, though, her “network” was very much enhanced by being married to John Roberts.
In a prior statement to the Times, a spokesperson for the Supreme Court said that the justices, including Roberts, are “attentive to ethical constraints” and obey laws governing financial disclosure. The spokesperson also told the Times that the Robertses had complied with the code of conduct for federal judges, citing an advisory opinion finding that “a judge whose spouse owned and operated a legal or executive recruitment business need not recuse merely because a law firm appearing before the judge engaged the judge’s spouse.” (Other advisory opinions have held that when a judge’s spouse is actively recruiting for a firm appearing before that judge, or when a spouse has personally done “high level” recruitment work that generated “substantial fees,” recusal would be appropriate.)
Honestly, though, that strikes me as silly. There are only so many top-drawer law firms in the country, so a legal recruiter would likely do business with all of them.
We’re going to see more, not less, of these sorts of problems. I’m old enough to remember the days when essentially all major government officials were men whose wives were mostly homemakers and socialites. The first time I remember this being an issue was with Bill and Hillary Clinton, both incredibly talented people whose careers were intertwined, constantly raising exactly these sorts of questions. What was once rare is now common: talented women maintain their careers after marriage and tend to marry men of similar talent and promise.
The Chief Justice makes just under $300,000 a year and is allowed to earn another $30,000 from outside teaching. That’s a good living! But I would imagine Jane was making at least double that when she married John in 1996; she’d already been a partner at Pillsbury for nine years by that point.
We could, I suppose, simply require that people in a handful of top offices be free from any possible conflict of interest. We could mandate that their assets be in blind trusts. I don’t think, though, that we’re going to mandate that their spouses quit earning money. And it’s hard to imagine a job that wouldn’t present some potential conflict for a Supreme Court justice.
Why am I suddenly thinking about pitchforks and guillotines?
This is pretty unbelievable IMO.
1) There plenty of legal fields that don’t (or almost never) involve federal litigation.
2) Law firms with business before SCOTUS giving loads of money to the wife of the Chief Justice is so obviously a conflict of interest that it beggars belief to assume that it isn’t.
It should be noted that conservative pundits are pointing out that the husband of Brown Jackson has potential conflicts. So in about a month the financial activities of 3 justices have come under suspicion. There maybe something there or there may not. It’s the problem that the SC justices, finances and income sources beyond salary are a black box and that is made worse by a code of conduct that’s a joke.
To date all justices have made statements to the effect that they like it that way, which raises more questions of what are they hiding.
There used to be a standard line about military contracting. The scandal isn’t what they do that’s illegal, the scandal is that what they do is legal.
Both Ginni Thomas and Jane Roberts have monetized their husbands positions. Roberts was pulling in like five times her husband’s salary. Would he do things to protect that income? We’re a long way from a Caesar’s wife standard.
At least now we know why Robert’s wasn’t motivated to to do anything about Thomas.
In a related matter Alito gave an interview with WSJ in which he said he knows who leaked the Dobbs draft overturning Roe but he’s not saying because he doesn’t have proof. He doesn’t need proof to report his suspicion to the Marshall of the Supreme Court, who was charged with investigating the leak. Did he do so? Apparently he didn’t say so. Sounds a lot like “I didn’t steal Bobby’s lunch, somebody else did.” He also went off on a more than a little paranoid rant on how the justices are all assassination targets now.
After this, the Dobbs decision itself, and mostly his pointless, whiny dissent on the stay of the mifepristone decision (and he apparently hasn’t learned how to pronounce “mifepristone”), are we allowed to wonder if mentally Alito’s past his use by date? As long as there are at least 34 GOP senators impeachment is off the table. Is there any other mechanism for removal if he is mentally unfit? This sort of thing used to be handled behind the scenes, with colleagues gently pushing and friends and family sweetening retirement. But that ain’t gonna happen to a Republican justice unless there’s a Republican prez.
I’m probably going to say this wrong but when it comes to ethics, morality, good behavior rules are OK as laying out the expectations but fundamentally, we want our justices, leaders, etc. to know what is ethical and moral without having rules. Right now, all the excuses are: “I followed the rules”, “I filed my disclosures”, “I was told that what I did was OK”. It is all legalistic (I know, they are lawyers). Not once has anyone actually said, “Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have done that”, “I should’ve known better”.
It is about being ethical, not legal.
You know, having given it a few decades’ thought, I have to say that I now have some sympathy for the Red Guards. I’m not suggesting that the pampered, privileged and powerful should be forced into the fields at gunpoint to harvest rice. That would be ridiculous — we don’t grow that much rice. Now, cotton? Grapes? Strawberries?
If not stoop labor, how about the service industries?
“Hi, I’m Clarence, I’ll be waiting on you this evening, can I start you with some cocktails?”
Well he’s done his best to ensure that there are enough weapons in the hands of enough deranged individuals to make that a distinct possibility. Something about chickens coming home to roost.
@Sleeping Dog: I, and pretty much everyone else, have refrained from commenting that there would be some justice in applying “Second Amendment solutions” to Alito and Thomas. I think I just broke down and finally did it.
I see some guy in TX was shooting his AR-15 in his front yard. A neighbor asked him to stop because the noise was keeping an infant awake. The guy shot dead the neighbor and four of his family.
It cant be emphasized enough that these are lifetime jobs. Arguably the most powerful in the country. It is a position where there isn’t much to act as a check on their decisions. It is particularly important that these judges engage in both legal and ethical behavior as Scoot pointed out. Also as pointed out these arent jobs they cant give up. If its important for the spouse to have a job that leads to conflict they can give it up.
As an aside its ironic, or something, that there have been thousands of stories about Hunter Biden and the assumption that he and his father must be guilty of influence but for which there is only the vaguest documentation while for these judges we have much better documentation of what could be influence with very large amounts of money but we are supposed to assume that the judges are paragons of virtue and were never influenced by the gifts. Plus, they are so virtuous they dont even need to report their financial dealings, or if they do its OK to leave out minor details like who gave them the money/gifts.
Corporations have built up a way for people to act like gangsters and operators without a whiff of corruption. It seems like it’s very important for men in the GOP to be told 24/7 that they work in worlds where corruption or abuses of power don’t exist. I don’t think you would get these nutso responses from a person climbing their way through the art world or Hollywood, but maybe I’m wrong.
Alito and co are laying the groundwork for overturning the 2024 election and then quelling any sort of criticism as being a threat. All of these Federalist Society goons with their hatred of students yelling at them and desire to punish law schools are following orders. Trump will change the 2024 election through the courts and Leonard Leo will tell his hacks to do their jobs, all while whining about how they and the Court and America are the real victims.
My brains blow right by the conflict of interest stuff to be gobsmacked by this.
$10.3M over 8 years not for practicing law, but for finding expensive lawyers to fill massively high paying jobs practicing law. Can it really be that hard? And you know these costs flow downhill – I’m paying more for everything because the lawyering necessary to protect massive profits for the corporations that produce the things I use day to day is so incredibly valuable that our capitalist system directs money that way as a matter of business. Invisible Hand indeed.
Why? You think Thomas’ spit is delicious?
I can see that the dots make a picture. I’m just not sure whether it’s a picture of a puppy or a nothing burger. But I’m like the Supremes on this question; if somebody wants to flesh out a case that people are bribing families of SCOTUS justices/buying favorable rulings, I’m willing to listen.
There are lots of jobs that do not present an ongoing opportunity for bribing a Justice through their spouse.
And, we can (and should) put limits on the Justice, rather than the spouse, with remedies ranging from recusal to resignation. (And prosecution and imprisonment, I suppose, if the Justice refuses)
If a potential Justice and their family cannot live with those restrictions, there are other jobs. I hear McDonalds is hiring.
Couples make joint decisions based on the career of one party all the time. Do we move to Colorado so you can take the Foo Job? I’m sure there are people who cannot get security clearances needed for some job because of their spouse.
I’ve become a big fan of Jamelle Bouie at NYT. A black guy has to be twice as good to compete and he is. His columns are well researched, insightful, and clearly written. A couple weeks ago he had a column (paywall free) that cuts to the heart of this,
Our laws on corruption, such as they are, are targeted on simple, direct, small scale corruption, “If you vote for the zoning change I need I’ll give you this thousand dollars cash.” What’s really going on in the Supreme Court is reinforcement of class solidarity. “Rich people spent a lot of money to get you trained, nominated, and seated, and we’ll give you a bucket and a place by the money stream (stolen from Vonnegut) if you play along.” And the beauty of good minions is you don’t have to tell them explicitly what you want.
@Sleeping Dog: Could you elaborate on Judge Brown’s spouse? All I saw is that they meet at Harvard and that he is a doctor. Obviously any spouse deserves to make a living but in a situation like Judge Roberts, they need to put guide-rails when both are in the same field. Getting paid millions of dollars for a few years worth of work as a headhunter for law firms that practice in front of the Chief Justice stinks to high heaven. It looks to me that she was getting paid for other reasons since rookie head hunters don’t make that kind of money. It is certainly worth looking into, but Roberts won’t allow it which is another red flag.
@gVOR08: I find it rich that he is whining about the Dobbs leak when it is incontrovertible that he leaked the Hobby Lobby outcome.
@Raoul: His rant on the Dobbs leak sounds a lot to me like “Me? I didn’t steal Bobby’s lunch. I know who stole Bobby’s lunch, but I’m not sayin’ because. Squirrel!”
I only skimmed a couple of paragraphs and it was a nothingburger. The gist as I recall, is that her husband has biz associates that have had issues before the court. So it is more of a Brown could have a conflict. Note that Brown was picked on because neither Sotomayor or Kagan are married.
AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA [deep breath] AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAA
[wipes tears from eyes]
She doesn’t have to quit earning money to avoid conflicts of interest.
Oh c’mon James. Say my wife was a top architect/engineer working billion $ jobs in STL. Do you really think that I as a union carpenter couldn’t find work she had nothing to do with? Maybe, just hear me out, maybe she could have gotten a job in the DC public defender’s office. How many of their cases end up on a SC docket?
@Sleeping Dog: “Note that Brown was picked on because neither Sotomayor or Kagan are married”
Given that David Brooks is the standard, “twice as good” is faint praise.
Bouie is excellent.
@OzarkHillbilly: Then she might get the smell of poor on her clothes, and we just can’t have that.
I may be the only one not seeing this as a huge problem. It’s not really comparable to what Thomas has been doing. Law firms get paid whether they win or lose cases before SCOTUS. And none of her recruits have argued before SCOTUS.
@Hal_10000: I find her less offensive than Thomas, given Ginni’s attempts to overthrow the government, and more hypocritical regarding the conservative fascination with Hunter Biden. Then there’s the complete denial about the Trump kids capitalizing on their Dad’s office.
If they broke the law, throw the whole fuckin lot of them in jail. If we think there ought to be a law, let’s do that, too. Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet Members, Members of Congress…..we should clarify that.
I confess I’m having some trouble finding the ethical breach here. At most, Mrs Roberts is trading on her name, just like Hunter Biden. But I can’t see any conflict of interest for her husband. Suggesting he might be inclined to rule in favor of a party represented by a law firm which has employed his wife is really a stretch. Would people make the same objection if she ran a cleaning company that services the law firms’ offices, or leased them motor vehicles? I can’t see any equivalence to Thomas’s situation.
On the other hand, the case for a Supreme Court judge publicly disclosing his spouse’s income and its sources would appear to be unanswerable.
@Hal_10000: Are you serious? It has been reported (though I have not corroborated) that the lawyers who argued in front of him also lined his pocket. This not a potential conflict, this is a conflict of interest of which attorneys and judges get sanctioned in any other venue. At an absolute bare minimum this needs to be looked at. How would feel if you had a court case and the wife of judge overseeing the case received a quarter million dollars from the opposing counsel.
Oh dear, the problems of the elite gentry class, as everyone elected to Congress is part of. Ditto the Senior Executive Service (SES), Flag/General Officers of the military, the myriad assistant and under secretaries of the various departments.
I’m totally with James on the disconnect of the 1950s woman in support of her husband (accessory) to today’s equal, and the rules and mores haven’t kept pace. Do you expect a “First Husband” (when that occurs) to coordinate flower arranging in the White House as the First Lady does today? Maybe, if he likes it.
SARK: These dinosaurs expect a woman to be subservient to her husband’s promotion. She needs to be a good housewife and stop working (say the left?). Heads explode.
If she made millions doing so? Yes.
@Sleeping Dog: “Well he’s done his best to ensure that there are enough weapons in the hands of enough deranged individuals to make that a distinct possibility. Something about chickens coming home to roost.”
The right-wing elite is quite happy to f*ck the masses over, while allowing them to be well-armed (see most Confederate states). That shows how little those elites fear an armed populace.
@Raoul: “How would feel if you had a court case and the wife of judge overseeing the case received a quarter million dollars from the opposing counsel.”
He’d probably go to his clients and say, ‘pay to play’.
As noted multiple times in the OP, $1.3 million a year was quite likely a pay cut from what she was earning as a senior partner in a BigLaw firm.
First – Alito is as bitter and aggrieved as Thomas; both have held grudges since their respective confirmation hearings. Both are gleefully breaking as much liberal furniture as they can now that the Court is solidly reactionary.
Second – I believe that Alito would definitely report this to the Marshall if he suspected it was a staffer of a liberal Justice. A problem might be if it was a staffer of Justice Roberts. Not sure he would go after Roberts on this.
Third – This is Alito’s Court now, he is the de-facto Chief Justice now.
@James Joyner: JJ: I’m afraid you are making stuff again and you are certainly speculating. Currently the highest partner salary in her old law firm is $400k a year according to salary.com. What’s your source. Sounds to me like she was indeed cashing in her new position.
@Raoul: I was relying, as noted in the OP, on a January NYT report that “Partners at leading law firms in Washington on average make well over $1 million a year, and at the high end, they can be paid over $7 million.” One presumes the $400k salary is a baseline and the vast majority of their income comes from bonuses and the like tied to their rainmaking ability.
I don’t see what the problem is here. Joyner teaches Marines and yet this blog is clearly anti-American and anti-military. Can it be that he is in it for the money?