Under fire, US Supreme Court unveils code of ethics for judges

The US Supreme Court building is seen as the justices released their financial disclosure reports in Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen on the day Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito released their delayed financial disclosure reports and the reports were released in Washington, U.S., August 31, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Wurm/File Photo Acquire Licensing Rights

WASHINGTON, Nov 13 (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday published its first formal code of conduct governing the ethical conduct of its nine justices, bowing to months of outside pressure over revelations of undisclosed luxury travel and hobnobbing with wealthy benefactors.

The new code received mixed reviews, with some critics noting the apparent absence of any enforcement mechanism. It was passed after a series of media reports detailing ethics issues surrounding some Supreme Court members, notably conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, even as Senate Democrats pursued long-running legislation to mandate an ethics code for the nation’s highest court.

The nine-page code includes sections codifying that judges should not allow outside circumstances to influence their official conduct or judgment, clarifying limits on their participation in fundraising and reiterating limits on accepting gifts. It also states that judges should not “to any significant extent” use judicial resources or personnel for non-official activities.

A commentary published with the code elaborating on some of its provisions said judges weighing a speaking engagement should “consider whether it would create an appearance of impropriety in the minds of reasonable members of the public.”

Unlike other members of the federal judiciary, the Supreme Court’s lifetime justices had long acted without a binding code of ethics. That absence, the court said in a statement accompanying the code, had led some to believe that judges “consider themselves unfettered by ethical rules.”

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“To dispel this misunderstanding, we are issuing this Code, which largely represents a codification of principles that we have long regarded as guiding our conduct,” the statement said.

For months, the court has been hit by revelations about judges over undisclosed trips on private jets, luxury vacations, real estate and recreational vehicle deals and much more.

Senator Dick Durbin, chairman of the Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee, called the code a “step in the right direction.” But Durbin left open the possibility of further legislative efforts if he determines the code does not meet “the ethical standards to which other federal judges are held.”

“We will carefully review this proposed code of conduct to evaluate whether it meets our goal that the highest court in the land does not languish with the lowest ethical standards in our federal government,” Durbin said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, called the code “an important first step.”

“But the lack of any way to enforce the code of conduct if a court decides to ignore it is a glaring omission,” Schumer said.

Carrie Severino, a former law clerk for Thomas who heads the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, said she doubts the code will satisfy Senate Democrats, arguing that the real purpose of their focus on the ethics issue has been to intimidate a court which they despise “for being true to the constitution.”

The ethics drumbeat added pressure on a court already facing withering public approval after major rulings in its last two terms driven by its 6-3 conservative majority. The court ended its recognition of a constitutional right to abortion, expanded gun rights, and rejected affirmative action college admissions policies often used to increase the number of black and Hispanic students.

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Northwestern University legal ethics expert Steven Lubet said the code “answers a public demand in a very respectful and thorough way.” But Lubet noted shortcomings, including the court’s reiteration that judges themselves will decide whether to recuse themselves from a case.

“Nobody should be the sole decider of their own prejudices, but they perpetuate it,” Lubet added.

Indiana University legal ethics expert Charles Geyh said of the court, “What remains to be seen is whether this is a one-off designed to get Congress and the media off their backs, or the start of a more meaningful effort to embrace the code. on a deeper level by working with it, thinking about it, applying it and revising it that other courts have.”

News outlet ProPublica detailed luxury trips by Thomas that were provided by Texas businessman Harlan Crow, as well as real estate transactions involving the justice and the billionaire Republican donor. A report by Senate Democrats found that Thomas apparently failed to repay at least a “substantial portion” of a $267,230 loan from longtime friend Anthony Welters to buy a luxury car.

ProPublica also described an undisclosed 2008 flight that conservative Justice Samuel Alito took on a private jet provided by billionaire hedge fund founder Paul Singer to a luxury fishing trip in Alaska.

Other media reports have described a real estate transaction involving conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch and the CEO of a major law firm, as well as aides to promote the sale of books by liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor at her public speaking events.

Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham

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