Jane Roberts, the wife of Chief Justice John Roberts, acknowledges having represented a wide variety of public officials — including senior Justice Department officials and cabinet members — as they transitioned to jobs in the private sector, according to testimony in an arbitration hearing to resolve a lawsuit filed by an ex-colleague against her former legal recruiting business.
A partial transcript of that testimony was included in a complaint submitted to the House, Senate and Justice Department filed in December on behalf of the former colleague.
The complaint, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO, accuses the chief justice of failing to acknowledge the full extent of his wife’s work in his ethical disclosures, presenting her as a salaried employee of her firm rather than one who receives commissions from law firms, some of which have cases before the Supreme Court.
Jane Roberts’ placements included at least one firm with a prominent Supreme Court practice, according to the complaint, which also includes sworn testimony from Roberts herself, in which she notes the powerful officials — whose agencies have had frequent cases before her husband — for whom she has worked.
“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,” Roberts said, according to a transcript of a 2015 arbitration hearing related to her former colleague’s termination.
In her testimony, Roberts also noted the benefit of working with senior government officials: “Successful people have successful friends.”
Jane Roberts and her firm, Macrae, did not immediately respond to requests for comment by email.
A spokesperson for the Supreme Court declined to respond to questions Tuesday about the complaint and whether the court is pursuing the issues raised in it.
In response to earlier questions about the justices’ financial disclosures, the court pointed to a 2009 ethics opinionfrom the Judicial Conference that judges generally don’t need to recuse themselves in cases simply because their spouse works as a consultant or service provider to a firm involved in litigation before the court.
“As a general proposition, the fact that the spouse or the spouse’s business has a business relationship with an entity that appears in an unrelated proceeding before the judge usually does not require the judge’s recusal,” the opinion says.
The high court also noted that the federal government’s rules for financial disclosures generally do not require public disclosure of the clients of officials’ spouses.
As the most senior officials in the judicial branch, the justices are not bound to follow such guidance or policies. However, they look to those practices for guidance, a spokesperson said.
The complaint included a list of Jane Roberts’ placements between 2007 and 2014 and her alleged commissions, some of which are hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is unclear whether the figures represent her earnings or the firm’s billings for her work.
In an analysis filed along with the complaint, Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman writes that “it is plausible that the Chief Justice’s spouse may have leveraged the ‘prestige of judicial office’ to meaningfully raise their household income.”
“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.
A sworn affidavit backing the complaint was submitted by Kendal B. Price, a Massachusetts attorney and former colleague of Jane Roberts at the legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, where Price was a managing director in the partner practice group.
Price, who was eventually fired from the firm, recalled in his affidavit being 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. When he raised the issue, colleagues did not seem to wish to discuss it, he said.
In a statement to POLITICO, Price said he decided to file a complaint with government authorities in order to expose potential ethical issues regarding the Supreme Court.
“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,” Price said. “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.”
A New York attorney who submitted the complaint on Price’s behalf, Joshua Dratel, said his client acted in part out of frustration that there is no official mechanism for raising ethics issues at the Supreme Court and due to previous reporting in POLITICO and elsewhere about ethics concerns at the high court. In September, POLITICO reported that gaps in ethical disclosures enabled justices, including Roberts, to shield their spouses’ clients who may have business before the court.
“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 said Tuesday. “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.”
In 2014, Price sued Major Lindsey over his termination, alleging that the firm had not paid his commissions and that another colleague there had stolen his clients, according to Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. Jane Roberts was named as a defendant in the case. Price explained in his affidavit sent to Congress that he had been afraid of potential negative consequences of coming forward with allegations against Jane Roberts.
Price’s suit against Major Lindsey was moved from a Massachusetts state court to an arbitrator, who eventually ruled against Price. In his affidavit, he noted that he only directly interacted with Jane Roberts once during his time as an employee of Major Lindsey.
In a statement, John Cashman, president of Major Lindsey, maintained that Roberts, who worked at the firm for more than a decade, was among “several very successful recruiters at [the firm].”
“As a firm, MLA makes placements at hundreds of law firms each year – and like many of our highly-skilled recruiting consultants, Mrs. Roberts had a strong track record of excellent work,” Cashman said in the statement. “The success of our recruiters – and of our organization – stems from the fact that we hold our work and each of our consultants to the highest standards: Candidate confidentiality, client trust, and professionalism are the cornerstones of our 40 years of successful business.”
Dratel, Price’s attorney, rejected the notion that Price leveled the complaint against the Robertses out of lingering spite over his firing or the failure of his legal action against the firm.
“We’re well down the road from that,” Dratel said. “This is about the nation and the integrity of the court and knowing something that contributes to that. … He didn’t publish this. He sent it to Congress.”
Among the officials represented by Roberts at Major Lindsey was former Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar, who joined the prominent Washington-based law firm WilmerHale in 2013, according to Price. For arranging Salazar’s hiring, Price calculated that Roberts must have received about $350,000, he alleges. And as part of that deal brokered by Roberts, WilmerHale also agreed to open an office in Denver.
In the 2015 testimony in Price’s suit, Jane Roberts said lawmakers she has placed at law firms have started at annual salaries ranging up to $3 million.
WilmerHale did not immediately respond to a message asking for comment.
Salazar is currently U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Five years after Roberts received the commission from WilmerHale, the firm’s lawyers appeared before the Supreme Court representing a marine construction company, the Dutra Group, in a case regarding a sailor injured on one of the company’s vessels. Chief Justice Roberts ultimately sided with WilmerHale’s client, that the sailor was not owed punitive damages, Gershman noted.
Beyond the Dutra case, WilmerHale maintains a significant practice before the Supreme Court, 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.
Gershman argued that, given his wife’s relationship with the firm, the judicial recusal statute would require the chief justice to recuse himself from WilmerHale’s 27 cases between 2013 and 2017. Alternatively, Roberts could have sought disclosure and waiver. Gershman argued that the chief justice must recuse himself from all cases with counsel that have “made substantial payments to his household or ‘fully disclose’ such payments to counsel and seek a waiver by the litigants.”
Gershman also noted that Roberts’ financial disclosures list his wife’s income as salary, as opposed to commission. The allegations that Jane Roberts may have used her husband’s position for financial benefit, combined with the deficiencies in Roberts’ financial disclosures, is “far from trivial, technical, or harmless,” Gershman writes.
“It directly threatens the public’s trust and confidence in the federal judiciary at the highest level,” he noted.