ATLANTA — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told a crowd of judges and lawyers Thursday that the leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade is “absolutely appalling,” but will not affect the final outcome of the court’s historic deliberations on the abortion issue.
“We will go about doing our work as we would in any event, regardless of the leak,” he said. Roberts has confirmed that the draft of an opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., published Monday night by Politico, was genuine, though not final.
The disclosure has rocked the Supreme Court and judicial world. Common in the political branches of government, leaks in the Supreme Court are virtually unheard of, and never has a draft opinion been published in full. Roberts at times seemed to still be having trouble believing it happened.
“The thing that upsets me quite a bit, though, is that it might give the wrong impression about our workforce,” Roberts said in a session led by Ed Carnes, a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
“The people who work at the Supreme Court are extremely dedicated to the institution, and in fact to the rule of law,” Roberts said, adding that extends from “from the guy who empties the wastebasket at night to the most tenured justice on the court.”
Justice Clarence Thomas was sitting in the front row as Roberts spoke.
“They share a common commitment to the mission of the court,” Roberts said. “And this episode, this absolutely appalling episode, shouldn’t detract from that.”
The lawyers and judges at the conference come from Florida, Alabama and Georgia, and Carnes had suggested at the beginning of the event Roberts address “the elephant in the room. And not the Alabama Crimson Tide elephant.”
But probing questions are not common when judges interview the chief justice; Carnes did not press on the investigation Roberts has said the Supreme Court marshal will conduct. At one point, Carnes good-naturedly warned Roberts he was about to ask a question “that isn’t on the script.”
The disclosure has put the court in an uncomfortable spotlight as it addresses one of the most divisive issues it faces. There have been demonstrations at the court and speculation about whether the outcome of the case is a foregone conclusion or still subject to change.
Alito canceled his appearance at a similar judge and lawyer conference in Nashville. Thomas is scheduled to speak here Friday.
After commenting on the leak, Roberts resorted to his usual wit and sometime self-deprecating humor. He noted that early after he became chief justice, he said he would work to craft more unanimous decisions from the nine-member body. Instead, divided opinions stacked up. “I learned on the court unanimous means 7 to 2,” he said.
And when asked about advice to lawyers about writing briefs and arguing at the court, Roberts began his answer, “If I were to go back to private practice — which I hope doesn’t happen.”