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Their Families Fled Vietnam. Now They’re Helping Afghan Refugees in America




Thuy Do couldn’t look away from the devastating clip playing on a loop on television news — hundreds of Afghans running alongside a massive U.S. Air Force cargo plane, desperately trying to flee their home country. The frantic frowns felt so familiar, reminding her of images of refugees packed onto helicopters to escape Vietnam more than four decades earlier.

So during the summer, Do, a doctor in her late 30s whose family left Vietnam when she was a girl and resettled in Seattle, sat down in her living room with her husband and talked about how they could help.

“We just knew we had to do something,” she said, reflecting on the initial shock of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August. “This is a time for us to give back.”

Many time zones away, past jagged mountain ranges and the vast Pacific Ocean, Abdul Matin Qadiri settled into a corner inside Hamid Karzai International Airport, where he and his wife and their four children would spend two nights waiting anxiously for an evacuation flight. As soon as word had begun to spread of the Taliban entering Kabul, the nation’s capital, Qadiri, who had worked alongside the U.S. military as a mechanic, decided to flee as soon as possible.

“It was life or death,” said Qadiri, who is in his mid-40s. “We had to get out.”

In the weeks that followed, through a process shaped by generosity, coincidence and deep understanding, the paths of Do and Qadiri — whose journeys were separated by 30 years — intersected in the place they both now call home: the Pacific Northwest.


The federal government, as U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan, has evacuated about 83,000 people to the United States, with some transported to American military bases from Texas to New Jersey to await word about where they’d begin to build new lives.

About 35,000 people remain at Department of Defense installations. But 36,000 have either proper legal paperwork or have been assisted by government-approved resettlement agencies and are now housed in communities across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Additional evacuees are awaiting U.S.-bound flights at military bases in the Middle East and Europe.

To augment the effort, the Biden administration recently announced a pilot program allowing groups of at least five individuals — who must, among other things, pass strict federal background checks — to apply to become “sponsor circles,” helping Afghan refugees to resettle for at least three months. The initiative is designed to supplement the efforts of resettlement agencies.

In Washington state, about 1,200 refugees have already been resettled, and Gov. Jay Inslee has announced that he expects nearly 1,700 more Afghan refugees will move to the state in the months ahead. To help prepare, resettlement groups and sponsor circles here have gone into overdrive.

Among the sponsor circles is Viets for Afghans, a grassroots group founded by Vietnamese refugees and the children of refugees after the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15. This, members say, feels like an opportunity that’s impossible to pass up in order to pay forward the support their families once received.

“We see our families — our own loved ones — in the current situation with Afghan refugees,” said Thanh Tan, who helped start the group while participating in a series of group texts with friends.

Thanh Tan, 40, is a co-founder of Viets for Afghans. Tan’s parents and oldest sister are refugees from Vietnam.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Despite age differences, the members are united in their lives having been shaped by their families’ departure after American troops withdrew from what was then South Vietnam in 1975. They are bonded by memories and stories of struggle, of arriving in a new country with few resources and options, and surviving in part due to the kindness of strangers. Each has relatives who escaped by boat, part of a humanitarian crisis in which 800,000 Vietnamese fled over a span of two decades.

Tan’s parents and oldest sister fled Vietnam by boat in 1978, three years after U.S. forces pulled out of the country, and the capital, known then as Saigon, fell to the North Vietnamese army.

The relatives slept in wooden shacks in a refugee camp in Malaysia for six months, eating rationed red beans and rice before being resettled in Olympia, Wash.

“My family was fortunate to arrive here when they did,” said Tan, 40.

When they got to Washington, there was already a robust Vietnamese community following the first group of refugees who’d responded to a 1975 invitation from then-Gov. Dan Evans. Evans’ welcoming stance came, in part, as a response to California Gov. Jerry Brown’s initial opposition to resettling refugees. (In the years that followed, however, tens of thousands of Vietnamese built lives in Southern California, most notably in Orange County.)

Nearly 500 Vietnamese refugees arrived in Washington in May 1975, and the state now has more than 100,000 residents of Vietnamese descent.

A man sweeps a sidewalk in Seattle’s Little Saigon community.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“We saw that open hand to our community,” Tan said. “We have to give back. …This community is known for its openness to immigrants.”

On a recent soggy evening, Tan and other members of Viets for Afghans huddled at a Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Seattle. Over steaming bowls of pho, they mapped out a plan for the group’s official launch as a sponsor circle.

Since August, the group had raised more than $15,000 online, and its website shows side-by-side images of Vietnamese refugees boarding helicopters in the 1970s and hundreds of Afghans packed into a military plane departing Kabul. To date, the group has helped three Afghan families.

Jefferey Vu, an engineer at Boeing, is a member of the group. His dad, fleeing Vietnam along with his own parents and his nine siblings, arrived at Camp Pendleton in 1975. They were housed at the San Diego County Marine base before being resettled in the Seattle area.

After a background check and vetting, Vu recently temporarily moved out of his downtown Seattle apartment, which has become the home of a woman who recently fled Afghanistan. Vu, who is still paying rent on his apartment, is living with his girlfriend and other family for now.

“That history sticks with me today. It’s full circle,” Vu said. “In America, you can pay it forward. … That’s what we hope to do.”


During the early years of Do’s childhood, her family’s life centered on efforts to leave Vietnam. Soon after the war ended but before Do was born, her parents had sought to escape by boat, but they struggled and had to turn around. In the years that followed, they made two more failed attempts to leave.

Thuy Do with son Frederick at their Seattle home. She settled in the United States with her family after fleeing Vietnam.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

They gave up for a while, but in 1991, through a government program, Do, her parents and her three siblings finally flew to the U.S., moving into a small house in south Seattle, where many other Vietnamese families — including extended family of their own — already lived. Do was 9.

“My family knew a lot of people,” she said. “There was support from family and other refugees like us.”

Seattle became home — the city where she went to elementary school, middle school, high school and college. She made friends, got married and graduated from the University of Washington School of Medicine in 2010. She and her husband began a family and she started her own private practice in south Seattle, now home to immigrants from Vietnam, the Philippines and East Africa.

“I’ve built a life here,” she said on a recent afternoon in her living room with her husband, Jesse Robbins, a self-defense instructor, seated next to her. “Many of my friends, many of my patients are immigrants like myself.”

Robbins, who knows Vu through community activist circles, heard from him about the early efforts of Viets for Afghans.

Robbins and Do knew that shelter would be the top priority for the thousands of Afghan refugees headed to the U.S., and they knew they were in a position to help. They own two houses — the one they live in and a vacant three-bedroom property a few blocks away that they would occasionally rent out short-term.

“It all came together really fast,” Robbins said.

In early September, they reached out to several groups, including the local Jewish Family Service, which has worked alongside resettlement agencies in finding housing for Afghan families. Within a few days, after background checks and paperwork were cleared, the group placed an Afghan couple and their six children in the vacant home.

The family stayed only a week before a resettlement agency found them a new house. Then the couple got a message from World Relief, a global Christian humanitarian organization based in Baltimore that is among the resettlement agencies approved by the federal government. Another family urgently needed housing and would be arriving in Seattle soon.


The only life Qadiri knew was on the streets of Kabul.

He was there when U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and in the years that followed, as he started a family and grew familiar with the constant background noise of Humvees and Chinook helicopters.

Recent Afghan refugees Abdul Matin Qadiri and his wife shop for groceries in Seattle.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Over the years, Qadiri worked as a mechanic on U.S. military vehicles. He forged friendships and felt a sense of camaraderie with Americans, who he believed were genuinely trying to help his country.

In 2018, he applied for a special immigrant visa, the first step toward a then far-off dream of one day moving to the United States. The process took three years and he finally received his visa earlier this year, he said. He knew the U.S. planned to withdraw, but he didn’t expect the Taliban to quickly conquer the country.

“It all became very chaotic,” he said.

Qadiri arrived at the Kabul airport on Aug.18, three days after the Taliban takeover. It was just after 11 p.m. when he and his wife and their four children finally made it into the terminal because of the visa. They slept inside the airport, curled up in tattered blankets. Outside, thousands more pushed toward entry points frantically trying to get in.

Soon, the family would board a hulking plane bound for Qatar, where they spent seven days, before being flown to Washington Dulles International Airport. Qadiri was exhausted. The family tested negative for the coronavirus.

“It was draining,” Qadiri said through an interpreter, who speaks Dari. “But we were finally in America, so there was joy.”

The next leg of their trip brought them to Seattle and then, with help from World Relief, to Do’s spare residence.

They arrived at the two-story blue house on a chilly, overcast morning in September.

“I’m just grateful to be out of Afghanistan,” Qadiri said on a recent morning. He wore a long-sleeved shirt emblazoned with the word “Army,” for the U.S. military branch, and spoke with an ease that he said he hadn’t felt in a long time. A steady rain fell outside as he lounged on the living room couch.

Qadiri has distant friends who live in Kent, Wash., and Renton, Wash., both suburbs of Seattle where sizable Afghan immigrant populations reside.

“That,” he said, “gives me peace and ease.”


Since Qadiri and his family arrived, Do has tried to give them space. The COVID-19 pandemic lingers and the shock of leaving their home country so quickly can be a lot, she imagines.

They live a mile apart in a neighborhood lined with Ethiopian and Vietnamese grocery stores, as well as a light rail train that cuts through its core, shuttling passengers between Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and downtown.

Abdul Matin Qadiri’s wife holds a tea kettle given to the family by Thuy Do, whose own family fled Vietnam.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

In recent weeks, Do has stopped by briefly to deliver sweaters and heavy jackets so the family can stay warm in the damp winter weather. She also dropped off an extra television and tea kettle.

“We just want them to be comfortable,” she said, noting that a language barrier — Qadiri speaks mostly Dari — makes even short conversations difficult.

A social worker has been assigned by World Relief to help Qadiri find permanent housing — hopefully an apartment in Kent, he says, near the friends he knows from Kabul.

Some days, he tries to catch up on the news in Afghanistan. He sees that the Taliban are raiding homes of citizens who helped Americans during the war. He tries his best to look forward, not back — at least not right now, when everything is so new.

Abdul Matin Qadiri prays in his living room in Seattle.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“I am slowly building a new life,” he said.

Most days, he stays inside the house. He prays. He hasn’t seen much of Seattle, he says, because he doesn’t have a car or a driver’s license. Once a week, he walks to the nearby Safeway to purchase groceries with aid from World Relief. His wife cooks bakes and the family eats dinner together. He wants to become a mechanic in the Seattle area and has started to look for work.

“Soon, I need to work,” he said. “That is the American way — work hard and good will happen.”

One day this month, Qadiri and his family moved out of Do’s house. A new family, through Viets for Afghans, soon arrived.

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News Analysis: Biden, in Blasting Trump, Concedes the Nation Has yet to Heal




For the better part of the last year, President Biden has sought to ignore his predecessor as he has tried to deliver on a campaign promise to return the country to some semblance of political normalcy.

But in a passionate speech at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday marking the one-year anniversary of the bloody insurrection, Biden essentially conceded he could not reconstruct a world before Donald Trump’s tenure, nor could he deliver on his promise of protecting democracy without calling out the former president’srole in lying about the 2020 election results and inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol.

“For the first time in our history, a president had not just lost an election. He tried to prevent the peaceful transfer of power as a violent mob reached the Capitol,” Biden said from Statutory Hall, a historic chamber in a Capitol building that Biden, a former senator, reveres.

Biden avoided using Trump’s name, following a practice he has tried to abide since taking office on Jan. 20. But it hardly mattered. Like a prosecutor delivering a closing argument, the president methodically detailed Trump’s conduct as the slow-motion riot accelerated. He described how Trump lit the fuse and watched it on television from the White House, “doing nothing, for hours” to stop it.

In concluding his case, Biden hit hard at Trump’s motive:

“His bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our Constitution,” Biden said. “He can’t accept he lost.”

Visual coverage from remembrance events throughout the day marking the anniversary

This was not a commemoration filled with calls for unity or a return to normalcy as much as it was a plea for Americans to accept the truth of what happened a year ago. There was no attempt to say the nation had healed and has come together with common purpose or belief.

On the contrary, Biden spent much of the address debunking Trump’s claims of a rigged election, point-by-point, asking why many of the Republicans who have supported the former president’s fraud claims have not disputed their own victories, on the same ballots.

Few thought such a speech would be necessary a year after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, inflicted injuries on more than 100 police officers, contributed to the deaths of five people and forced the evacuation of lawmakers from the complex. Biden certainly hadn’t anticipated needing to make such an address. He pitched his candidacy on the idea that he was a seasoned hand who had worked across the aisle, one of the grown-ups in the room. The nation, he believed, could snap back from a twice-impeached president who smashed norms and challenged bedrock institutions.

“The thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House,” Biden said in his first 2019 campaign visit to New Hampshire. “You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”

On the night he was declared winner of the election, Biden still believed healing would come.

“It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, to lower the temperature, to see each other again, to listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy,” he said.

But many elected Republicans and conservative media figures — even those who once agreed Biden had won the election or who texted Trump begging him to stop the insurrection — have since paid Trump homage at his Florida home. They have amplified his false rhetoric. The lies have taken hold on the rank-and-file in the party: 3 in 4Republican voters in a recent National Public Radio poll agree with Trump that there were “real cases of fraud that changed the results.”

The closest Biden came to reaching across the aisle on Thursday was an offer to work with Republicans who accepted the election and a concession that “some courageous men and women in the Republican Party are standing against” the lies. But even then he went only so far, quickly pivoting back to his harsher argument: “Too many others are transforming that party into something else.”

Biden seemed to understand that his words were unlikely to win him Republican converts and the risk of further politicizing the event. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close Trump ally, acknowledged in a statement Thursday that Jan. 6 that he “cannot believe that a mob was able to take over the United States Capitol during such a pivotal moment — certifying a presidential election.” He then blasted Biden’s speech on Twitter, saying it was a “brazen politicization of January 6.”

The president’s willingness to attack Trump, if not in name, will come as a relief to some Democrats who believe Biden’s determination to seek bipartisanship and convey normalcy has slowed his agenda. In particular, they believe his strategy has prevented him from articulating the full case for a voting rights bill in the face of Republican-led efforts at the state level to change the rules.

They point to senators like Graham, who once prided themselves as bipartisan dealmakers, as evidence of a changed party.

Biden has resisted giving up on his view that the parties can work together and will likely point as evidence to his $1-trillion infrastructure bill that he signed in November. But Republican leaders were absent from Thursday’s commemoration and are likely to drive an even harder partisan wedge as this year’s midterm elections approach.

Those who see this moment as an emergency for American democracy may have finally gotten the speech they wanted. As he was leaving the Capitol Thursday morning, Biden was asked whether calling out Trump would lead to more division than healing.

“The way you have to heal, you have to recognize the extent of the wound,” Biden told reporters. “You can’t pretend. This is serious stuff.”
Staff Writer Eli Stokols contributed to this story.

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‘I Really Thought That I Was Going to Die That Day’




For decades, many members of Congress believed the U.S. Capitol — with metal detectors, barriers and its own police force — to be one of the safest places in the country.

That comfort was shattered on the afternoon of Jan. 6, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the building in hopes of overturning Joe Biden’s electoral college victory.

In interviews, six members of Congress from California recount their stories from that deadly day: the surreal experience of realizing that their lives were at risk, that their workplace was being overrun and that the nation’s two-century record of a peaceful transition of power had crumbled.

‘All I could think of is: Get Out. Run. As fast as you can. You don’t want to be trapped in here. Run, run, run. And all of a sudden, they closed the doors on us and they told us to get on the ground. There’s people trying to break in outside the doors.’

Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles)

Rep. Jimmy Gomez, a Democrat from Los Angeles, told a Times reporter on Jan. 6 that “people are running for their safety.”
(Tom Williams / Associated Press)

Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles) was in the gallery of the House chamber when the rioters breached the Capitol.

He and his colleagues were running across the gallery in hopes of escaping when he saw Capitol Police barricading the door the president uses to enter the chamber for the State of the Union. The rioters were too close for the lawmakers to get out safely.

“All I could think of is: Get out. Run. As fast as you can. You don’t want to be trapped in here. Run, run, run,” Gomez recalled. “And all of a sudden, they closed the doors on us and they told us to get on the ground. There’s people trying to break in outside the doors.”

Once police cleared the hallways and escorted the lawmakers to safety, several members of Congress got together and committed to remaining in the building and finishing the certification of the electoral college vote.

“That’s when [Reps.] Hakeem [Jeffries] and Liz Cheney said we’re going to go back and finish the job,” Gomez said. “They brought buses to get the members out, and [Rep.] Ruben [Gallego] and other Democrats were like, ‘Do not get on the buses.’ They said that’s how a coup happens: when the electeds are evacuated out of the Capitol or out of the palace. … So everybody that I was talking to was committed to staying.

“It was a terrible, terrible day. I don’t know if I said this to [Times reporter] Sarah [Wire] or a different reporter, but I did say like, ‘This is how a coup happens and this is how democracy dies and Donald Trump should probably be brought up on treason.’ And I still believe that to this day. I’m glad we impeached him. But now we know that there’s more people involved.

“I remember actually flying back from D.C. and, you know, I was on the plane with a bunch of MAGA people that were with their gear, like they’re coming back from a Republican convention or something.”

Gomez’s experience getting caught in the gallery left him shaken, but he says his resolve to stand up for democracy has only grown since that day.

I’m a son of immigrants that believes in this whole idea of America, the idea of self-governance, the idea that you come here, you work hard, you believe in our values, you’re going to succeed, because I’m an example of that promise … in one generation. That doesn’t happen in a lot of countries. It doesn’t happen in Mexico, where my family’s from. So my resolve has been just more firm than ever.

“But it’s been tough, to be honest. I got triggered … a few months ago, and I didn’t really see it coming on, but I got hot and my vision got tunneled. So I had to kind of walk away. … But my resolve, it’s stronger than ever.”


‘I really thought that I was going to die that day, that I was going to be killed — that I would be literally killed — that I would possibly have to fight for my life, that so many of my colleagues would probably be victims.’

Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona)

Rep. Norma Torres, a Democrat from Pomona, was inside the House chamber when the attack began.

“It was a very violent day for me. I had never been in a situation where I felt so unsafe, and I really thought that I was going to die that day, that I was going to be killed — that I would be literally killed — that I would possibly have to fight for my life, that so many of my colleagues would probably be victims.”

A year ago, as Trump supporters rioted in the halls, Torres told Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire, who was reporting inside the Capitol on Jan. 6: “It’s horrible that this is America. This is the United States of America and this is what we have to go through, because Trump has called homegrown terrorists to come to the Capitol and invalidate people’s votes.”

Torres said she has changed since that day, noting that she no longer feels safe inside the Capitol complex and sees her GOP colleagues in a different light.

“There used to be a time in the past, before the Jan. 6 insurrection, where I could look and see somebody wearing their congressional pin and think, ‘That’s my ally.’ Even if they were Republicans, it was like, ‘OK, that’s my ally, and we’ll take care of each other no matter what happens.’ I don’t feel that way anymore about my colleagues. Not at all.”


‘Attacking a federal building, whether it is the U.S. Capitol or a court or anything else, does not tear down democracy.’

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale)

“Nobody should be breaking into this building for any purpose,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican from Richvale shown speaking on the House floor in 2020.
(Associated Press)

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a California Republican from Richvale who was on the House floor when insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, called the riot a “deplorable situation.”

“Nobody should be breaking into this building for any purpose, let alone trying to stop a process that we were going through, and we were going through it in good faith, no matter what side you were taking on the issue of the day.”

He said he wasn’t concerned about the long-term prospects of democracy, because the republic is built on people, not buildings.

“Attacking a federal building, whether it is the U.S. Capitol or a court or anything else, does not tear down democracy. We’re not a democracy, by the way — we are a republic. Democracy is on election day.

“So our republic is not torn down by what building the meetings are held in, but by the heart and souls of the people that are elected to carry out the business of the government wherever that’s done.”


‘I always thought that personally I was very safe in this job, particularly when I’m in the Capitol complex, because it takes so much to get in there. Certainly I don’t think about it every day, but I don’t quite feel that same level of safety.’

Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego)

Rep. Scott Peters, a Democrat from San Diego, said that as he was trapped in the House gallery on Jan. 6, he was thinking, “How could people get by security in one of the top terrorist targets in the country?”
(Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press)

Rep. Scott Peters, a Democrat from San Diego, was in the House gallery when he saw something he’d never seen before: a nonmember of Congress at the rostrum.

“It was someone from the security force. He said: ‘Please stay in your seats. There’s been a breach in the Capitol.’”

“I didn’t know what to think at that point. I assumed that a few rogues had run by the metal detector. But I didn’t know how serious it was. Gradually I was kind of hurt that this was happening, thinking, ‘How could people get by security in one of the top terrorist targets in the country? We should be ready for this.’

“At one point, members were about to be evacuated when they were told to ‘get to the floor.’

“So everyone kind of got down low. And that was a little bit of a sobering moment. Then at one point, we heard an explosion. It sounded like a gunshot or a tear gas deployment. We didn’t know. I think it might’ve been the shot that killed my constituent. Ashli Babbitt was from San Diego.”

Peters, who was first elected in 2012, added that he doesn’t feel as safe as he did in his first term as a member of Congress.

“I always thought that personally I was very safe in this job, particularly when I’m in the Capitol complex, because it takes so much to get in there,” he said. “Certainly I don’t think about it every day, but I don’t quite feel that same level of safety.”


‘No matter what your politics, it wasn’t a good day.’

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona)

Rep. Ken Calvert, a Republican from Corona, speaks in the House of Representatives in 2019. He called the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 “troubling.”
(Associated Press)

Rep. Ken Calvert, a Republican from Corona, was in his office in a nearby building, not in the Capitol itself, but was still disturbed by what he saw and called it “very regretful.”

“I mean, it was troubling. But I wasn’t here in the building. And I have a lot of friends that were. Certainly, no matter what your politics, it wasn’t a good day. It’s a bad situation.”

He said he has hope that any changes to the institution of Congress and to relationships won’t be long-lasting.

“We have to get back to some kind of normalcy again. … I’m an optimist, I’m hoping we get back to some comity around here.

“These people are my friends. I may be in a different party and I don’t agree with them, but it doesn’t mean we can’t like each other. … We’re a divided nation, there’s no doubt about it, but people expect us to get together, get things done.”


‘Divisions here in this country are our biggest challenge. That’s what keeps me up at night. … It’s really trying to crack this nut of, how do we break this fever of division in our country?’

Rep. Mark Takano, a Democrat from Riverside

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside) sheltered in a nearby office building during the Capitol riot.
(Associated Press)

Rep. Mark Takano, a Democrat from Riverside, had to make his way from one House office building to the next during the riot.

“It looked like kind of a refugee zone with all these staffers sitting on the other side of the hallway, stepping over people.

“I got a couple of texts asking if I was OK,” Takano said. “But up until now, I don’t really have a reality of what is happening because I’m not looking at the news, but I’m getting a couple of texts from people saying, ‘Are you OK?’ And I thought this was kind of strange.

“I felt a little insecure, but I was in an office complex that was sort of nondescript. We were sheltering for an extended period of time. But I don’t have any kind of lingering trauma, personal trauma. I do have concerns going forward about the political culture of the country and the political norms of the country.”

Takano said he believes “the biggest challenge to America is ourselves.”

“That’s our biggest challenge. Divisions here in this country are our biggest challenge. That’s what keeps me up at night. … It’s really trying to crack this nut of, how do we break this fever of division in our country?

“I don’t see this being solved in one year or one election. It’s going to take a lot of courage. Persistence.”

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Chief Justice Roberts Calls for Better Enforcement of Conflict Laws Involving Judges’ Stock Ownership




Federal courts need to do much better at enforcing conflict-of-interest laws that are supposed to prevent judges from deciding cases in which they hold stock, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said in his year-end report on the judiciary.

He was responding to a report in the Wall Street Journal in September that from 2010 through 2018, federal judges participated in 685 cases involving companies in which they or their spouses held stock. When contacted, many of them said they were unaware of the stock holdings because a money manager handled their investments.

The chief justice said federal law requires judges to recuse themselves from a case in which they have a direct financial interest, no matter how small.

“Let me be crystal clear: the Judiciary takes this matter seriously. We expect judges to adhere to the highest standards, and those judges violated an ethics rule,” he wrote.

“We are duty-bound to strive for 100% compliance because public trust is essential, not incidental, to our function,” he continued. “Individually, judges must be scrupulously attentive to both the letter and spirit of our rules, as most are.”

He said “professed ignorance of the ethics rule” or the failure of computer software designed to prevent such conflicts were no excuse. Most judges rely on a computer program to alert them when a case coming before them includes a company in which they hold stock. Sometimes a relevant company slips by the software if it is a subsidiary of a larger corporation.

Roberts said that may explain some lapses, but not for judges who had multiple violations. For them, “there is a more serious problem of inadequate ethics training…. our ethics training programs need to be more rigorous. That means more class time, webinars, and consultations. But it also requires greater attention to promoting a culture of compliance, even when busy dockets keep judicial calendars full,” he said.

He noted, however, that ethics violations appear to be rare. Of the 2.5 million civil cases handled by federal district courts in the nine years that were examined, he said the 685 violations account for less than three-hundredths of 1%. “That’s a 99.97% compliance rate,” he said.

Moreover, he said the newspaper story did not report that “the judge’s actions in any of those cases — often just routine docket management — actually financially benefited the judge.”

The chief justice said the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts is working on improving technology and training to deal with the problem.

Judges are not prohibited from owning direct shares of stock. If their shares are held indirectly in mutual funds, they are not required to step aside.

He did not suggest imposing penalties for repeat violators. For the most part, federal judges are responsible for deciding when they should remove themselves from a case.

As chief justice, Roberts serves as the leader of the federal judiciary.

Roberts received the highest job approval rating of 11 U.S. leaders in a Gallup poll taken in early December and released earlier this week, with 60% approving of how he is handling his role.

Only two other leaders received positive job approval ratings from a majority of Americans surveyed: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell (53%) and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to President Biden (52%).

Roberts was the only leader who received majority approval from both Republicans (57%) and Democrats (52%).

He fared much better in the poll than elected leaders. Biden was approved by 43%, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) by 40% and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) by 34%.

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