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Under fire, US Supreme Court unveils ethics code for justices

U.S. Supreme Court building is seen as justices released their financial disclosure reports in Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen on the day that Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito released their delayed financial disclosure reports and the reports were made public in Washington, U.S., August 31, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Wurm/File Photo Acquire Licensing Rights

WASHINGTON, Nov 13 (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday announced its first formal code of conduct governing the ethical behavior of its nine justices, bowing to months of outside pressure over revelations of undisclosed luxury trips and hobnobbing with wealthy benefactors.

The new code drew mixed reviews, with some critics noting the apparent absence of any enforcement mechanism. It was adopted after a series of media reports detailing ethics questions surrounding some Supreme Court members, in particular conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, even as Senate Democrats pursued long-shot legislation to mandate an ethics code for the nation’s top judicial body.

The nine-page code contains sections codifying that justices should not let outside relationships influence their official conduct or judgment, spelling out restrictions on their participation in fundraising and reiterating limits on the accepting of gifts. It also states that justices should not “to any substantial degree” use judicial resources or staff for non-official activities.

A commentary released with the code elaborating on some of its provisions said that justices who are weighing a speaking engagement should “consider whether doing so would create an appearance of impropriety in the minds of reasonable members of the public.”

Unlike other members of the federal judiciary, the Supreme Court’s life-tenured justices had long acted with no binding ethics code. That absence, the court said in a statement accompanying the code, had led some to believe that the justices “regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules.”

“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.

The court has been buffeted for months by revelations regarding justices over undisclosed trips on private jets, luxury vacations, real estate and recreational vehicle deals, and more.

Senator Dick Durbin, who chairs the Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee, called the code a “step in the right direction.” But Durbin held open the possibility of further legislative efforts if he determines the code falls short of “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,” Durbin said.

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 Thomas who heads the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, said she doubts the code will satisfy Senate Democrats, alleging that the real purpose of their focus on the ethics issue has been to intimidate a court that they despise “for being faithful to the Constitution.”

The ethics drum beat added pressure to a court already facing declining public approval following major rulings in its past two terms powered by its 6-3 conservative majority. The court ended its recognition of a constitutional right to abortion, expanded gun rights and rejected affirmative action collegiate admissions policies often used to increase Black and Hispanic student enrollment.

‘PUBLIC DEMAND’

Northwestern University legal ethics expert Steven Lubet said the code “answers a public demand in a very respectful and thorough way.” But Lubet noted shortcomings, including the court’s reiteration that the justices will decide for themselves whether to recuse from a case.

“Nobody should be the sole determiner of their own biases, but they maintain that,” Lubet added.

Indiana University legal ethics expert Charles Geyh said of the court: “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.”

News outlet ProPublica detailed luxury trips by Thomas that were provided by Texas businessman Harlan Crow as well as real estate transactions involving the justice and the billionaire Republican donor. A report by Senate Democrats found that Thomas apparently failed to repay at least a “significant portion” of a $267,230 loan from longtime friend Anthony Welters to buy a luxury motor coach.

ProPublica also detailed an undisclosed 2008 flight that conservative Justice Samuel Alito took on a private jet provided by billionaire hedge fund founder Paul Singer for a luxury fishing trip in Alaska.

Other media reports have detailed a real estate transaction involving conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch and the chief executive of a major law firm, as well as aides promoting sales of books by liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor in conjunction with her public speaking events.

Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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