US Supreme Court adopts new ethics code News
Fred Schilling, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
US Supreme Court adopts new ethics code

The US Supreme Court announced a code of ethics Monday amid ethics scandals and public pressure. The new code claims to respond to the “misunderstanding that the Justices of [the Supreme] Court, unlike all other jurists in this country, regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules.” It is made up of five canons and four pages of commentary.

While largely derived from the Code of Conduct for US Judges, the Supreme Court’s new code does not adopt much of the lower code’s commentary. Thus, the Supreme Court’s code claims to be better “adapted to the unique institutional setting of the Supreme Court.” The code appears to be non-binding and uses entirely permissive language, rather than mandatory language. In other words, it is still dependent upon the justices to act upon and conduct themselves in accordance with the code.

The new code’s five canons are:

1: A Justice should uphold the integrity and independence of the Judiciary.

2: A Justice should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities.

3: A Justice should perform the duties of office fairly, impartially, and diligently.

4: A Justice may engage in extrajudicial activities that are consistent with the obligations of the judicial office.

5: A Justice should refrain from political activity.

As a general theme, the canons encourage justices to refrain from engaging in conduct which could be construed as political, such as making speeches at campaign rallies, soliciting donations or running for another government office. The canons also suggest that justices should recuse themselves from any cases in which they learn about any conflict of interest with family members or acquaintances. The commentary notes “amici and their counsel will not be a basis for an individual Justice to recuse”—a possible nod to a recently uncovered ethics scandal with Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife Ginni.

US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who in July proposed a bill to reform the Supreme Court’s ethics code, celebrated the move. But Whitehouse noted that “a code of ethics is not binding unless there is a mechanism to investigate possible violations and enforce the rules.” The code adopted by the court on Monday contains no such mechanism.

The Supreme Court’s adoption of a code of ethics is in-part a response to allegations that members of the Supreme Court have engaged in conduct which would likely be prohibited if done by lower federal judges. In June, ProPublica reported that Justice Samuel Alito failed to disclose a luxury fishing trip. In July, the Associated Press reported that Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s court-staff were doing work for her book ventures. In August, ProPublica reported that Clarence Thomas failed to disclose gifts he received during his tenure. In September, ProPublica also reported that Clarence Thomas attended donor events for a political organization.

An August poll found that approval of the Supreme Court among the American public was at a record low, which also held true in a September poll.