Supreme Court will implement ethics code for justices

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Supreme Court ethics code
In this undated file photo, James Earle Fraser's statue "The Authority of Law" sits at the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. (OSV News photo/Mark Thomas, Pixabay)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — The U.S. Supreme Court announced Nov. 13 that it will implement an ethics code for its justices. The move comes after a series of allegations that some of the justices have received expensive gifts or allegedly taken part in improper financial activities.

In a statement issued by the court, the justices said they were adopting a code of conduct “to set out succinctly and gather in one place the ethics rules and principles that guide the conduct of the members of the court.”

“For the most part these rules and principles are not new: The Court has long had the equivalent of common law ethics rules, that is, a body of rules derived from a variety of sources, including statutory provisions, the code that applies to other members of the federal judiciary, ethics advisory opinions issued by the Judicial Conference Committee on Codes of Conduct, and historic practice,” the statement said.

“The absence of a Code, however, has led in recent years to the misunderstanding that the Justices of this Court, unlike all other jurists in this country, regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules,” the justices continued. “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.”

All federal judges are required to adhere to a formal ethics code. However, the Supreme Court, which is the only federal court created by the Constitution, is not bound by that same code. Supreme Court justices are subject to legislation requiring annual financial disclosures, limiting their income earned outside the court. The American Bar Association, and others, including critics of the court, have called for the Supreme Court to adopt a formal code of ethics.

Some recent allegations of ethics violations involving Supreme Court justices include ProPublica’s report that Justice Clarence Thomas participated in luxury vacations, including one with a Republican donor who had business interests before the court, and an Associated Press report that Justice Sonia Sotomayor and her staff advanced sales of her books through her visits to colleges.

Openness to a code

In recent months, some of the justices, including Justice Amy Coney Barrett, have signaled openness to adopting a code of ethics similar to the ones that other federal judges must abide by.

The court cast its new ethics code as being similar to that of other federal judges “but adapted to the unique institutional setting of the Supreme Court.” However, the code did not make clear what enforcement mechanism would be in place to ensure adherence.

The code states, “A Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States should maintain and observe high standards of conduct in order to preserve the integrity and independence of the federal judiciary.”

It states that justices should respect and comply with the law “and act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary,” reject relationships — family, social, political or financial — that could influence their official work, and should not hold membership in any organization that “practices invidious discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, or national origin.”

A justice of the high court, it continues, should “not be swayed by partisan interests, public clamor, or fear of criticism” and should be “patient, dignified, respectful, and courteous to all individuals with whom the Justice deals in an official capacity,” and not behave in ways that are “harassing, abusive, prejudiced, or biased.”

The code also prohibits justices from commenting on matters before the court and outlines the circumstances in which they must recuse themselves from cases, or partake in other work opportunities, such as teaching or writing.

Kate Scanlon

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington.