Supreme Court adopts code of ethics after reports on undisclosed gifts and travel

The Supreme Court issued An ethical code After a series of revelations about undisclosed property deals and gifts on Monday, judges intensified pressure to accept one.

In a statement, the judges said they established the Code of Conduct to “concisely set forth and collect in one place the norms and principles that guide the conduct of members of the judiciary.” It is not clear how the rules will be implemented, and the court said it is still studying which code will be implemented.

“For the most part these rules and principles are not new,” the court said, “but the absence of a code has in recent years led the judges of this court, unlike all other judges in this country, to misapprehend themselves as unfettered by any code of conduct.”

Revelations of luxury vacations and high-profile gifts have shed light on how certain ethical rules bind judges, but under the new code, it’s unclear who will decide which of them break the rules.

The code, which runs to more than nine pages, does not place specific restrictions on gifts, travel or real estate deals. But it cautions judges that they should not participate in extraneous activities that “deface the dignity of a judge’s work”, “interfere in the performance of a judge’s official duties”, “reflect negatively on the impartiality of justice” or “front”. should be disqualified often.”

The rules also prohibit judges from allowing “family, community, political, financial or other relationships to influence official conduct or judgment.” The document cites examples of when judges should recuse themselves from a case, including because of “personal bias” or financial interests.

Experts in legal ethics gave the document measured approval.

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“This is a small but significant step in the right direction,” said Amanda Frost, a law professor at the University of Virginia. But he said he was concerned by the court’s failure to acknowledge past violations and the lack of mechanisms to enforce the new restrictions.

Daniel Epps, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said the new code reflects recognition that the court must act. “It’s good they did this,” he said. “It would be nice if they felt some obligation to respond to public criticism and act like they care.”

But, he said, “In terms of content, it doesn’t seem to be moving the ball much.”

Although a code of ethics binds judges in lower federal courts, those rules have never governed the Supreme Court because of its special constitutional status. In a letter to lawmakers this spring, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the court “takes guidance” from the ethics code for other federal judges and shared a statement signed by nine justices.

The main difference between the new code and one that applies to other federal judges lies in its treatment of recusals. In the commentary, the court said, judges should be wary of disqualifying themselves from cases because — unlike judges in lower courts — they cannot be replaced when they do.

“Because of the broad scope of the cases that come before the Supreme Court and the nationwide impact of its decisions,” the commentary said, the rule of recusal “must be considered narrow.”

In recent months, some judges, including Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanagh and Amy Coney Barrett, who publicly advocated an ethics policy. In September, at Notre Dame Law School, before the start of the court’s current term, Justice Kagan said she believed in an ethics code, saying, “I think it would go a long way in convincing other people that we are held to very high standards of conduct . . .”

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In mid-October, Judge Barrett echoed that sentiment during an interview at the University of Minnesota, saying, “It would be a good idea for us to do this, especially if we can let people know what we are. In a clear way.”

The debate over whether the Court should be bound by an ethical line has raged for years. During a 2019 budget hearing, Justice Kagan acknowledged that the court was considering such provisions. He said the chief justice was “reading the question of whether there should be a code of judicial conduct applicable only to the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Calls for the court to adopt a code intensified after the revelations raised questions about potential conflicts of interest.

Justice Clarence Thomas faced particular scrutiny. This is due to the political activism of his wife, Virginia Thomas, who worked to reverse the 2020 election results in the weeks leading up to the Capitol riots. Justice Thomas’ continued participation in cases related to the January 6 attacks or the outcome of the 2020 election has drawn criticism.

In April, ProPublica documented Years of Justice is an undisclosed luxury cruiseIncluding private jets and cruises on the megayacht of Texas real estate magnate and conservative donor Harlan Crowe.

Since then, several news outlets, including The New York Times, have revealed undisclosed gifts to Judge Thomas by powerful friends. They include Private school tuition fees An unsolved real estate deal is involved for a grandson who brings up justice Purchase of Neeti’s mother’s house and an undisclosed loan for the purchase of Justice Thomas’s motor coach.

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Judge Thomas defended his decision not to report the travel and gifts.

Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Other justices, including Gorsuch, have decided not to disclose their connections to wealthy individuals with close ties to the court. Justice Alito did not report Paul E. A 2008 trip on Singer’s private jet, a hedge fund billionaire who later held court cases. Judge Gorsuch did not disclose that the chief executive of a major law firm bought a partially owned vacation property in Colorado.

The code prohibits judges from speaking at events promoting commercial products or services, but includes an exception for events where judges sell books. Book deals, in the few million dollars, are highly lucrative for judges and, in some cases, court employees Helped to research and promote Books.

The rules prohibit the “fundraising event” from being “a speaker, guest of honor, or featured in the program.” The code defines a fundraising event as “the proceeds of the event exceed its costs or donations are solicited in connection with the event”.

All in all, said James Sample, a law professor at Hofstra University, the new code is a modest improvement.

“Do these codes of conduct solve problems?” he asked. “No. There will certainly be questions of implementation. There will be questions of detail, and you may question some of the rules. But this is a significant step.

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