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Chief justice overlooked stock conflict in Supreme Court case

Second instance in term; spokeswoman cites ‘human error’

Chief Justice John Roberts overlooked a conflict of interest when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected two appeals in an environmental-cleanup case earlier this year.

Roberts took part in the court’s Oct. 5 disposition of the case even though he or a close family member owned stock in Texas Instruments Inc., one of the companies that sought review.

The oversight represents the second time in the court’s current term that a justice has participated in a case while having a stake in a company involved in the litigation. Roberts is one of three justices who have stock interests in at least a dozen companies, according to their annual financial disclosure reports.

“There was a conflict that should have been caught but was not,” Kathy Arberg, the Supreme Court’s spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. She attributed the mistake to “human error.”

Justice Stephen Breyer’s holdings created an issue Oct. 14 when he heard arguments in an energy regulation case that involved a Johnson Controls Inc. unit. At the time, Breyer’s wife held $33,000 worth of that company’s stock, but the justice hadn’t made the connection. She sold her shares the following day, after a reporter inquired.

By all indications, neither conflict affected the outcome of the case. Still, the oversights are giving ammunition to those who say the justices should shed their individual stock holdings or put them in blind trusts.

“The institution is in dire need of policy changes on recusals and stock ownership,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, which first noticed the Roberts conflict. He suggested blind trusts as a way to “ensure these oversights do not continue to happen and that our most antiquated government body starts to comport with modern expectations of transparency.”

Under the court’s rules, litigants are required to list all the parties to the case, and businesses must disclose any publicly traded parent company. Each of the nine justices’ chambers has its own system for checking for conflicts.

Roberts or a family member owns from $100,001 to $250,000 in Texas Instruments, according to his 2014 disclosure report. By law, the justices can’t participate in a case when they own stock in a company that is a party to a case.

The Texas Instruments case centered on the federal Superfund law and the cleanup of a hazardous-waste site in Tucson, Arizona. Texas Instruments was one of 21 companies listed on the cover of one of the two petitions for review.

The court rejected the appeals summarily, indicating they had fallen short of the required four votes for granting a hearing. The court’s only comment was to say that Justice Samuel Alito didn’t take part for undisclosed reasons.

“Chief Justice Roberts’s oversight, as well as Justice Breyer’s similar mistake in October, demonstrate that the Supreme Court’s current system of self-checking for conflicts isn’t working,” Roth said in an e-mail.