Did Baseball Save the American Judiciary?

One has to wonder whether Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts was trying to curry favor with George F. Will in the opening sentences of his latest “Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary” (PDF):

In 1920, American baseball fans were jolted by allegations that Chicago White Sox players had participated in a scheme to fix the outcome of the 1919 World Series. The team owners responded to the infamous “Black Sox Scandal” by selecting a federal district judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to serve as Commissioner of Baseball and restore confidence in the sport. The public welcomed the selection of a prominent federal judge to purge corruption from baseball. But Judge Landis’s appointment led to another controversy: Could a federal judge remain on the bench while serving as Baseball Commissioner? That controversy brought to the fore a still broader question: Where do federal judges look for guidance in resolving ethics issues?

Chief Justice Roberts continues with a history lesson about how the Black Sox Scandal led, indirectly, to an overhaul of judicial ethics rules by a commission headed by his predecessor, William Howard Taft.

Later in his report, Roberts makes more explicit the connection between baseball and legal ethics:

When the Chicago White Sox took the field in 1919, they surely had no idea that their play would trigger a chain of events that would lead to the development of a code of conduct for federal judges. The public’s confidence in the integrity of the federal courts led to the appointment of a federal judge to address the Black Sox Scandal. And when the federal judiciary encountered an ethical issue of its own, it took the lead in articulating ethical standards to bolster that confidence.

Roberts also notes that

Throughout our Nation’s history, instances of judges abandoning their oath “to faithfully and impartially discharge and perform” the duties of their office have been exceedingly rare.

I will leave it to others to speculate whether he is aiming his defense of the judiciary’s integrity at Newt Gingrich or others who want to undermine the independence of the courts. As for George Will, he is probably satisfied that his own beloved Cubs have never cheated their way to a world championship — or got there any other way in the last century, for that matter.