Jane Roberts' anti-abortion advocacy helped her husband, Chief Justice John Roberts, land his spot on the Supreme Court years before Roe v. Wade was overturned
Chief Justice John Roberts' wife's anti-abortion advocacy once helped bolster his judicial career.
Details of Jane Roberts' work, though not new, are worth revisiting in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade's reversal.
The Supreme Court's recent legitimacy crisis has spurred renewed scrutiny of its influences.
Jane Sullivan Roberts, the wife of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, played a key role in helping her husband secure a spot on the Supreme Court nearly twenty years before the court overturned Roe v. Wade thanks to conservative power players who heralded her anti-abortion advocacy as evidence that the now top justice was the right man for the job.
Seventeen years later, John Roberts voted to uphold a Mississippi law that prohibits nearly all abortions after 15 weeks in Jackson v. Dobbs, a decision that led to the 2021 reversal of Roe v. Wade and the dismantling of 50 years of abortion protections and precedence. Notably, though, Roberts broke with his fellow conservatives to vote against overturning the landmark decision entirely.
Details of Jane Roberts' past anti-abortion activism are not new; her work with the nonprofit Feminists for Life was reported on during the run-up to her husband's confirmation in 2005. But amid a recent spate of misconduct allegations against the Supreme Court, the nine justices — as well as their families and spouses — are facing renewed scrutiny over their personal lives and financial dealings.
Questions of conflicts of interest combined with plummeting public trust in the top court have prompted deep dives into the justice's pasts in recent weeks, as well as growing calls for a Supreme Court code of conduct as the country considers how — and by whom — these powerful justices are influenced.
The court itself, however, seems to be resisting mounting public pressure. John Roberts last month declined an invitation from the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about Supreme Court ethics, citing concerns about the preservation of judicial independence.
"Every federal judge is bound to an ethics code requiring them to avoid behavior that so much as looks improper — except for Supreme Court justices," Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, a center-left advocacy organization, told Insider. "Chief Justice Roberts has the power to change that, but so far he hasn't shown the courage."
Jane Roberts' anti-abortion views bolstered her husband's judicial career
In the year leading up to John Roberts' nomination to the Supreme Court by then-President George W. Bush, many social conservatives were initially skeptical of the judge who seemed to have a lack of public opinions and speeches outlining his views, according to a 2005 New York Times profile following his nomination.
But Jane Roberts' work leading a top anti-abortion organization in the 1990s and her continued legal work on behalf of that nonprofit helped, in part, muster conservative support for her husband's Supreme Court nomination, according to research shared with Insider by the watchdog group Accountable.US.
From 1995 to 1999, Jane Roberts, a lawyer by trade, served as both a board member and executive vice president of Feminists for Life, a nonprofit anti-abortion group fighting to "make abortion unthinkable," according to the organization's president, Serrin Foster, who spoke to the Times about Jane Roberts' work with the group in 2005.
In a statement to Insider this week, Foster confirmed that Jane Roberts served as executive vice president and counsel for the group until the late 1990s.
"Her focus during her tenure was always on the unmet needs of women including mothers and birth mothers," Foster told Insider of Jane Roberts.
Even after stepping down from her leadership role with Feminists for Life, Jane Roberts continued to provide pro bono legal counsel for the group for several years, the Times reported.
Both Foster and a spokesperson for the Supreme Court separately confirmed to Insider that Jane Roberts stopped her work with the organization ahead of John Roberts' elevation to chief justice in 2005.
Feminists for Life filed several anti-abortion amicus briefs to the Supreme Court in the years before Jane Roberts joined the board, according to a 2005 Los Angeles Times article, including actions supporting the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act of 1982, which sought to limit abortion access in the state, particularly for minors, and in support of the rights of abortion protesters to picket outside a Virginia Women's Health Clinic.
Jane Roberts' advocacy and public political beliefs ultimately helped convince two conservative legal power players, Leonard Leo and Jay Sekulow, to publicly advocate for John Roberts' confirmation, according to the Times.
Two years after her husband's confirmation, Jane Roberts retired from law and pivoted to legal recruiting, working at a top head-hunting firm. Insider reported last month that Jane Roberts brought in a whopping $10.3 million in commissions from 2007 to 2014 through her work at the legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.
In June 2022, seventeen years after John Roberts was confirmed, his court oversaw the overturning of Roe v. Wade in a shocking decision that sent legal, political, and social shockwaves across the country that have only begun to reverberate.
"It's reasonable to ask if Jane Roberts' leadership and pro bono counsel for a right-wing anti-choice group with prior business before the Court is a conflict of interest for Chief Justice Roberts," Herrig, the Accountable.US president, said.
John Roberts' opinion on Roe v. Wade complicates the possible influence of his wife's political views
While the recent wave of controversy surrounding the court has prompted legitimate speculation about the justices' behavior, a Supreme Court expert told Insider that Jane Roberts' past anti-abortion leadership likely doesn't rise to the level of being a bonafide conflict of interest.
"I don't think a Supreme Court justice's spouse being involved in activism or having political views is itself a problem," Scott Lemieux, a professor of political science at the University of Washington and an expert on the Supreme Court and constitutional law, told Insider.
Lemieux added that it doesn't compare to the eyebrow-raising allegations that Justice Clarence Thomas' wife, Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, was secretly paid nearly $100,000 for "consulting" by a nonprofit that ended up filing an amicus brief before the Supreme Court.
Ginni Thomas, unlike Jane Roberts, openly continued her political activism after her husband was appointed to the court. A 2022 report from The Guardian found that Ginni Thomas maintains close political ties to more than half of the groups that filed amicus briefs in support of overturning Roe v. Wade.
Neither Supreme Court spouses, nor the justices themselves, are expected to be entirely apolitical, said Lemieux, particularly in our increasingly ideological political sphere.
At the time of John Roberts' nomination, liberals feared he might pose a threat to Roe v. Wade. But during his confirmation hearing, he repeatedly declined to answer questions about the case, insisting he believed the matter was "settled as a precedent of the court."
The suggestion then that Jane Roberts' anti-abortion work may have influenced her husband's judicial decisions on abortion cases is complicated by the fact that John Roberts did not ultimately join his fellow conservative justices in voting to overturn Roe v. Wade entirely, instead lending his support only to upholding the law at the center of Jackson v. Dobbs.
In his concurring opinion, John Roberts made clear that he felt the Supreme Court's five conservative justices went too far in overturning Roe v. Wade, calling it a "serious jolt" to the legal system while advocating for a "narrower" decision on the matter.
John Roberts even privately lobbied his fellow conservative justices to try and save the federal right to abortion up until the ruling went public, CNN reported in July 2022, focusing his efforts primarily on trying to sway Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
"If there was something about his wife's activism that made him particularly biased on that issue, it's pretty strange that, if anything, he's moved to the left on abortion over time," Lemieux said of John Roberts.
Roe v. Wade reversal will likely usher in a flood of abortion-related cases before the Supreme Court
Still, Lemieux said, it makes sense that the public has a renewed interest in reviewing the justice's personal lives, political dealings, and financial decisions amid troubling misconduct allegations, eyebrow-raising disclosure errors, and plummeting trust in the court in recent years.
"Ultimately, the Supreme Court is a powerful institution and all-powerful institutions deserve scrutiny," he told Insider. "It's not entitled to a fixed level of legitimacy."
That concept is especially true given the way abortion is shaping up to be an ongoing battleground issue in the aftermath of Roe's reversal. As states implement wide-ranging abortion restrictions following the overturning, Lemieux said it's likely many of those laws will be challenged and eventually make their way to the top court.
Already in the year since the landmark decision was overturned, the Supreme Court ruled on the abortion drug mifepristone, allowing continued access to the drug for the time being — a decision for which the individual justices' decisions were not made public, thanks to the court's "shadow docket."
"The idea that the Supreme Court will be out of the business of abortion, that just could not be more wrong," Lemieux said. "This is just the beginning."
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