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U.S. Supreme Court Adopts Ethics Code, But Has No Plan To Enforce Them

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U.S. Supreme Court adopts ethics code, but has no plan to enforce them, marking a notable response to external pressures arising from reports of undisclosed luxury trips and interactions with affluent supporters by its nine justices. The adoption of this new code follows a period of scrutiny and media revelations regarding ethical concerns, particularly involving conservative Justice Clarence Thomas.

While the code has garnered a range of responses, some critics have pointed out the apparent lack of a clear enforcement mechanism. This development comes amid efforts by Senate Democrats to push legislation that would mandate an ethics code for the highest judicial body in the nation, although the success of such measures remains uncertain.

The newly unveiled nine-page code outlines key provisions to ensure that justices refrain from allowing external relationships to unduly influence their official conduct or judgment. It explicitly details restrictions on their involvement in fundraising activities and reinforces limitations on accepting gifts. Additionally, the code emphasizes that justices should avoid using judicial resources or staff significantly for non-official activities.

A supplementary commentary accompanying the code provides further clarification on certain provisions. For instance, it advises justices to carefully assess the potential appearance of impropriety in the eyes of reasonable members of the public when considering speaking engagements.

In contrast to other members of the federal judiciary, the life-tenured justices of the Supreme Court had operated without a mandatory ethics code for an extended period. Acknowledging this gap, the court explained in a statement accompanying the new code that the absence of such guidelines had given rise to perceptions that the justices considered themselves exempt from any ethical constraints.

"To dispel this misunderstanding, we are issuing this code, which largely represents a codification of principles that we have long regarded as governing our conduct," the statement said.

For months, the court has faced a barrage of revelations concerning justices, including undisclosed trips on private jets, luxury vacations, real estate transactions, and recreational vehicle deals.

Senator Dick Durbin, who chairs the Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee, characterized the newly introduced code as a "step in the right direction." However, he left the door open to potential legislative actions, expressing a willingness to pursue further measures if he deems the code insufficient in meeting "the ethical standards which other federal judges are held to."

We are going to carefully review this proposed code of conduct to evaluate whether it complies with our goal that the highest court in the land not languish with the lowest standard of ethics in our federal government.- Senator Dick Durbin

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

"However, the lack of any way to enforce the code of conduct should any justice decide to ignore it is a glaring omission," Schumer said.

Carrie Severino, a former law clerk to Justice Thomas and the leader of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, expressed skepticism about the adequacy of the code to appease Senate Democrats. She asserted that, in her view, the Democrats' emphasis on the ethics issue has been a tactic to intimidate a court they disapprove of "for being faithful to the Constitution."

The heightened focus on ethics further intensified the pressure on a court that was already grappling with diminishing public approval, especially in the aftermath of significant decisions in its recent terms, driven by its 6-3 conservative majority. These rulings included the court's abandonment of the constitutional right to abortion, the expansion of gun rights, and the rejection of affirmative action in college admissions, a policy often utilized to promote increased enrollment of Black and Hispanic students.

The Supreme Court Building in Washington
The Supreme Court Building in Washington

Public Demand

According to Steven Lubet, a legal ethics expert at Northwestern University, the newly introduced code of conduct "answers a public demand in a very respectful and thorough way." However, Lubet highlighted certain deficiencies, particularly the court's reaffirmation that justices retain the authority to independently determine whether to recuse themselves from a case.

Nobody should be the sole determiner of their own biases, but they maintain that.- Steven Lubet

Indiana University legal ethics expert Charles Geyh commented on the Supreme Court, stating, "What remains to be seen is whether this is a one-off, designed to get Congress and the media off its back, 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 as other courts have."

ProPublicaextensively reported on undisclosed luxury trips undertaken by Justice Thomas, funded by Texas businessman Harlan Crow, as well as real estate transactions involving the justice and the billionaire Republican donor. According to a report from Senate Democrats, Thomas allegedly did not fully repay a substantial portion of a $267,230 loan from his longtime friend Anthony Welters, which was used to acquire a luxury motor coach.

The investigative outlet also revealed an undisclosed 2008 flight taken by conservative Justice Samuel Alito on a private jet provided by billionaire hedge fund founder Paul Singer for a lavish fishing trip in Alaska.

Other media reports delved into a real estate transaction involving conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch and the CEO of a major law firm. Additionally, there were reports of aides actively promoting the sale of books by liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor in conjunction with her public speaking engagements.

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