Jane Roberts was paid more than $10 million by a host of elite law firms, a whistleblower alleges.
At least one of those firms argued a case before Chief Justice Roberts after paying his wife hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Details of Jane Roberts’ work come as Congress struggles to reform the Court’s self-policed ethics.
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.
“When I found out that the spouse of the chief justice was soliciting business from law firms, I knew immediately that it was wrong,” the whistleblower, Kendal B. Price, who worked alongside Jane Roberts at the legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, told Insider in an interview. “During the time I was there, I was discouraged from ever raising the issue. And I realized that even the law firms who were Jane’s clients had nowhere to go. They were being asked by the spouse of the chief justice for business worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and there was no one to complain to. Most of these firms were likely appearing or seeking to appear before the Supreme Court. It’s natural that they’d do anything they felt was necessary to be competitive.”
Roberts’ apparent $10.3 million in compensation puts her toward the top of the payscale for legal headhunters. Price’s disclosures, which were filed under federal whistleblower-protection laws and are now in the hands of the House and Senate Judiciary committees, add to the mounting questions about how Supreme Court justices and their families financially benefit from their special status, an area that Senate Democrats are vowing to investigate after a series of disclosure lapses by the justices themselves.
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Jane Roberts did not respond to emails with detailed questions. When reached by phone on Thursday morning, she declined to comment, as did a spokesperson for the Supreme Court.
In an emailed statement, John Cashman, the president of Major, Lindsey & Africa, said that Jane Roberts was “one of several very successful recruiters” at the firm. He attributed his recruiters’ success to “the highest standards: Candidate confidentiality, client trust, and professionalism.”
A spokesperson for the firm declined to comment further. A spokesperson for Macrae, the recruiting firm where Roberts now works, did not return an email requesting comment.
The affidavit, along with internal financial spreadsheets showing Jane Roberts’ earnings at Major, Lindsey & Africa, were sent to congressional committees as part of a whistleblower complaint filed in December. The documents suggest that Jane Roberts was a highly successful recruiter: In the affidavit, Price says that one of the firm’s partners told him that she was “the highest earning recruiter in the entire company ‘by a wide margin.'” And a detailed internal spreadsheet compiled by Major Lindsey & Africa shows that Roberts’ “attributed revenue” totaled $13,309,433 between 2007 and 2014. Her share of that revenue, described by the spreadsheet as payments for “commissions,” adds up to $10,323,842.70.
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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.”
A cover letter from Price’s lawyer, Joshua Dratel, which summarizes his claims, was previously published by Politico and reported on by the New York Times, along with some details from the underlying documents, which Insider is publishing today for the first time. While the Times reported that Roberts “has been paid millions of dollars in commissions,” the total figure has not been previously reported.
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.”
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.
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.)
Dratel said that regardless of whether there was an actual conflict of interest, the linkage between the couple’s careers looked bad. “What’s the public confidence in a system when the firms which are appearing before the court are making decisions that are to the financial benefit of the chief justice?” he asked.
A series of damaging disclosures
The news of Jane Roberts’s outsized earnings and the allegation that she traded on her husband’s role comes as the Supreme Court faces a broader crisis of legitimacy. Only 25 percent of Americans say they have “a great deal” of confidence in the court, the lowest since Gallup started asking the question in 1974. The court has been rocked in recent weeks by a series of revelations about the behavior of sitting justices, including transactions and relationships that could lead to discipline in almost any other professional context.
First, ProPublica revealed that Clarence Thomas accepted lavish, undisclosed gifts of travel and had engaged in real estate transactions with Harlan Crow, a Dallas real-estate developer and GOP donor. That news prompted the discovery of errors in Thomas’s financial disclosure forms, which he agreed to revise. This isn’t the first time that Thomas has had difficulty with filing complete and accurate financial disclosure forms. In 2011, Thomas amended 13 years of forms, some of which had wrongly claimed that his wife Ginni had no outside income, when in fact she’d been paid more than half a million dollars by the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Then came the news that shortly after his confirmation to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch had sold his share of a vacation property to Big Law CEO. He reported the transaction on his disclosure forms, but left the name of the buyer blank.
These disclosures came on the heels of yet another report in November that an evangelical activist orchestrated an influence campaign targeting Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. by mobilizing a network of well-heeled conservative donors to contribute to the Supreme Court Historical Society. One of those donors, the activist claims, received an early heads up about a coming decision in the Hobby Lobby case.
Last week, Sen. Dick Durbin, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, invited Roberts to “restore confidence in the Court’s ethical standards” by coming on the Hill and giving public testimony. Roberts declined.
In a statement to Insider, Durbin suggested that he was close to giving up on the prospect that the Supreme Court was capable of policing itself. “The need for Supreme Court ethics reform is clear,” he said. “And since it appears that the Court will not take adequate action, Congress must.”
Unlike their 870 district-court and circuit-court colleagues, the nine Supreme Court justices are essentially exempt from strict compliance with the Judicial Conference’s rigorous Code of Conduct; instead they only consult it as what Roberts has called a “starting point.” The Supreme Court is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act or the oversight of the Office on Government Ethics. It has no internal ethics committee and no inspector general. In lieu of all these safeguards, there is a document called “Statements of Ethics Principles and Practices,” which Roberts provided to Durbin.
Even the bare-bones requirement of an annual financial disclosure form is, in Roberts’ view, a voluntary gesture, as “the Court has never addressed whether Congress may impose those requirements on the Supreme Court.”
A previous letter from Durbin urged Chief Justice Roberts to open an investigation into Justice Thomas for conduct “that is plainly inconsistent with the ethical standards the American people expect of any person in a position of public trust.” Roberts did not reply, although Judge Roslynn Mauskopf, the secretary of the Judicial Conference, did, writing that she had forwarded Durbin’s letter to the conference’s financial disclosure committee, which deals with “allegations of errors or omissions in the filing of financial disclosure reports.” But whether that committee has the authority to discipline Thomas or any other Supreme Court Justice remains a matter of murky constitutional interpretation, to be ultimately decided by the Supreme Court itself.
Now, Price and a legal ethics expert that he consulted for his complaint say that Chief Justice Roberts may have his own disclosure issues. The millions that Jane Roberts made placing Washington lawyers into high-level jobs, described as “commission” on internal firm documents, was listed each year as “salary” on John Roberts’ financial disclosure forms. (The form only requires judges to list the sources of spousal income, not the amounts.)
The balance of Roberts’ income did not come at a steady rate from a single employer, as “salary” suggests. It was paid by the deal and based on a sizable cut of her clients’ salaries — a compensation model which varies from year to year depending on her ability to capitalize on her network. The ultimate sources of her income were the firms hiring Major, Lindsey & Africa-backed candidates. Their identities and the specific amounts that they paid Roberts for her services remain unknown.
Price’s affidavit says that John Roberts’ characterization of his wife’s income as “salary” is “misleading.” A memo written in support of Price’s complaint by Bennett Gershman, professor at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University who has written books on legal ethics, goes further. “Characterizing Mrs. Roberts’ commissions as ‘salary’ is not merely factually incorrect; it is incorrect as a matter of law,” Gershman wrote. “The legal distinction between these terms is clear, undisputed, and legally material. If the Chief Justice’s inaccurate financial disclosures were inadvertent, presumably he should file corrected and amended disclosures.”
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In 2014, Price sued Jane Roberts and Major, Lindsey & Africa. He claimed that Roberts and another recruiter had collected fees for placing job candidates that were rightfully his. His complaint states that he was the only Black recruiter at the firm, and that his attempts “to recruit diverse in-house candidates” were not “only rebuffed … but also criticized as unproductive and unprofitable.” Price says in his affidavit that he only met Roberts once during the years when they were colleagues; he says he discussed both her performance and Supreme Court ties with other recruiters. Price’s suit was referred to an arbitrator, who dismissed Price’s claims, ruling in favor of the company. But in the process, Major, Lindsey & Africa produced the spreadsheets that show Roberts’ commission as well as “attributed revenue” connected to her recruiting.
Since then, Price has worked as the principal of a legal consulting firm in Boston, doing work that includes counseling other whistleblowers. It was years, he says, before he came to believe that the material he turned up in his own case should be made public. “I was worried about the potential negative effect of this disclosure on my life and career,” he wrote in his affidavit. “However, with the passage of time and reflection … I’ve decided that, despite the risks, it is time to share with you what I know.”
‘Successful people have successful friends’
Legal recruiting is an established niche profession. One Washington insider compared it to being a real-estate agent. “You know your customer and what they’re interested in,” they said. “Then you go out and find something. The barriers to entry are low. But there are certain realtors who are well-established, even realtors who deal with billionaires. At Jane’s level, no doubt she’s talking to the leaders of the big law firms and they’re telling her things like, well, when the attorney general steps down, we’d like to hire them. She’s not making cold calls.”
Recruiters get paid by the firms and companies that do the hiring — often 20 to 25 percent of a new hire’s first-year compensation, which can be in the seven figures. In sworn testimony taken in 2015, included as part of Price’s whistleblower disclosure and published here by Insider, Roberts gave a detailed account of the mechanics of her recruiting practice. Most of her business, she says, comes through referrals: “Successful people have successful friends.”
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In her testimony, Roberts said she specialized in placing current and former government officials at law firms, describing the mechanics of her job in market-oriented terms. Candidates, Roberts said, are “owned” by whomever first pitches them, and those contacts are logged in an internal company database. “The monetary value of a senior government official will depend on the value they bring to a law firm’s client base,” she said, “some very senior people have been basically valued at zero because the law firms don’t see the business case.” For that reason, Roberts said, she advises candidates — often current U.S. attorneys, cabinet secretaries, or even senators — to write a formal business plan explaining their value to elite firms.
Compensation for a retiring lawmaker, she says, “depends very much on the senator or congressperson’s ability to practice law and in what areas. So sometimes their highest and best use is as a lobbyist, but they don’t want to be lobbyists, so you can have, and others actually have, hard legal skills.”
Roberts stresses discretion: “I keep my placements confidential. The firm keeps them confidential.” Only a few, according to reporting by the Times, have become public: Robert Bennett, Brendan Johnson, Timothy Purdon, and Michael Held. Price’s affidavit cites another — Kenneth Salazar, who led the Department of the Interior under President Obama. Price alleges that Roberts would have received $350,000 for Salazar’s placement at WilmerHale, which has a booming Supreme Court practice. While there is no evidence that any of Roberts’ placements — as opposed to the firms that hire them — have argued before the Supreme Court, a legal consultant told Politico that Roberts’ “access to people is heavily influenced by her last name.”
Gershman’s memo cites one case, Dutra Group v. Batterton, in which the Supreme Court overruled a decision that found a WilmerHale client potentially liable for punitive damages. Roberts voted with the majority. “In my opinion, a reasonable person would want to know that the law firm on the other side of a legal dispute had recently paid the judge’s household over $350,000,” Gershman wrote. “Such a payment might cause a reasonable person to question the judge’s impartiality.”
Neither WilmerHale nor Salazar, who is now the US ambassador to Mexico, immediately responded to emails requesting comment.
In 2019, Jane Roberts left Major, Lindsey & Africa to head up the Washington office of Macrae, another legal recruitment firm, where she serves as managing partner. As with his previous forms, Justice Roberts’ most recent financial disclosure gives no indication of how much money his spouse made or which law firms it came from. Nor is there any indication that she earned a commission on placements, only income paid out by “Macrae, Inc. — Attorney Search Consultants – salary.”
Jack Newsham contributed reporting.
Mattathias Schwartz is a senior correspondent at Insider and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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