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Supreme Court adopts ethics code as justices face criticism over financial disclosures

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, left, talks to Chief Justice John Roberts during the formal group photograph at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, US, on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022. 
Eric Lee | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Supreme Court announced Monday it is adopting a code of ethics, a move that followed waves of criticism over reports about undisclosed gifts and travel received by some members of the high court.

The 14-page code of conduct was written to “dispel” the “misunderstanding” that the court’s nine justices “regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules,” the court said in a statement.

But the document’s apparent lack of an enforcement mechanism may do little to satisfy critics, who say that the powerful justices must be held accountable for their alleged ethical lapses.

Scrutiny on the court ramped up earlier this year, after ProPublica reported that Justice Clarence Thomas had accepted luxury trips from Republican megadonor Harlan Crow for years without reporting them on his annual financial disclosures. Other financial ties between the conservative justice were later reported, including that Crow bought the Georgia property where Thomas’ mother still lives rent free.

Thomas has said he was advised by lawyers that he did not have to include the travel expenses on his disclosures.

ProPublica later reported that Justice Samuel Alito had failed to disclose a luxury Alaskan fishing trip with billionaire Paul Singer, whose hedge fund had business before the court.

The self-issued code covers five canons of conduct, directing each justice to “uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary,” avoid “impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities,” perform their duties “fairly, impartially, and diligently,” engage in outside activities “consistent with the obligations” of the office, and “refrain from political activity.”

In releasing the code, the justices sought to downplay its significance, writing in a statement that it “largely represents a codification of principles that we have long regarded as governing our conduct.”

Still, they acknowledged that “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.”

It was not immediately clear whether the code would mollify Senate Democrats who had pushed the court for ethics reform and launched an investigation in the wake of the reporting.

The Senate Judiciary Committee was expected to vote in the coming days to vote to authorize subpoenas for Crow and judicial activist Leonard Leo after the two influential conservatives allegedly refused to cooperate with the panel’s ethics probe.

Spokespeople for Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Senate Budget Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the new code.

Republicans in Congress have vehemently objected to any effort to require the court to codify ethics standards for justices.

They accuse Democrats of trying to impugn the reputation of the high court, which currently comprises a 6-3 conservative majority of justices. Recent rulings on abortion, guns and other divisive issues have infuriated Democrats and progressives, and sparked voter-led pushback on the state and local level.

Minutes before the new code was released Monday, GOP Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee accused Democrats of “trying to strong arm the conservative justices into issuing rulings Democrats agree with.” 

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