The Supreme Court announced Monday that it had issued a code of ethics for judges after a series of revelations about undisclosed property deals and gifts intensified pressure on the court to adopt one.
In a statement from the court, the justices said they adopted the code of conduct “to succinctly describe and bring together in one place the ethical rules and principles that govern the conduct of members of the court.”
“For the most part, these rules and principles are not new,” the court said, adding that “the lack of a code has, however, in recent years led to the misconception that the judges of this court, unlike all other jurists of this court . country, considers itself unconstrained by ethical rules.”
It was unclear how the code will be enforced.
Although lower federal judges are bound by an ethics code, Supreme Court justices have never been required to adhere to the same rules because of its special constitutional status. In a letter to lawmakers this spring, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the court “takes guidance” from the ethics rules for other federal judges.
In the months since, a few justices, including Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett, have publicly expressed support for the court adopting an ethics policy. In wide-ranging remarks at Notre Dame Law School in September, before the court’s current term began, Justice Kagan said she believed a code of ethics “I think would go a long way in convincing other people that we adhered to the highest standards of conduct . .”
In mid-October, Justice Barrett echoed that sentiment during an interview at the University of Minnesota, saying, “It would be a good idea for us to do that, especially so that we can communicate to the public exactly what it is that we are . do it in a clearer way.”
The debate about whether the court should be bound by a code of ethics has been going on for years. During a 2019 budget hearing, Justice Kagan acknowledged that the court was considering such rules. She said the chief justice is “studying the question of whether to have a code of judicial conduct that applies only to the Supreme Court of the United States.”
calls on the court to adopt a code that is stepped up following revelations that raised questions about potential conflicts of interest.
Justice Clarence Thomas, in particular, has faced scrutiny, in part over the political activities of his wife, Virginia Thomas, who worked to overturn the 2020 election results in the weeks leading up to the Capitol attack. Judge Thomas came under criticism when he failed to recuse himself from cases related to attacks on the election results.
In April, ProPublica documented the justice’s years of undisclosed luxury travel, including private jets and trips aboard the superyacht of a Texas real estate magnate and conservative donor, Harlan Crow.
Since then, several news organizations, including The New York Times, have exposed hidden gifts to justice from powerful friends. These include the purchase of Justice Thomas’ motor vehicle, the payment of private school tuition for a great-nephew whom the judiciary raised, and the judge’s mother’s home in an undisclosed real estate transaction.
Judge Thomas has defended his decision not to report travel and gifts.
Other justices, including Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch, have also faced accusations of failing to disclose their connections to wealthy people with close ties to the court. Justice Alito did not report a 2008 trip on the private jet of Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire who later had cases before the court. Judge Gorsuch did not disclose that the head of a large law firm had purchased a vacation property in Colorado that he co-owned.