The Supreme Court of the United States has announced its first formal code of ethics governing the conduct of its nine justices, following months of outside pressure over revelations of undisclosed luxury trips and gifts from wealthy benefactors.
The policy, agreed to by all justices and put in place on Monday, does not appear to impose any enforcement mechanism and leaves compliance entirely up to each justice, critics noted.
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The nine members of the nation’s highest court are the only federal judges not explicitly subject to ethical oversight, and pressure has been mounting from Democrats in the Senate for them to adopt a code of conduct.
The nine-page code contains sections codifying that justices should not let outside relationships influence their official conduct or judgement, 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”.
The justices said they have long adhered to ethics standards and suggested that criticism of the court over ethics was the product of misunderstanding, rather than any missteps by the justices.
“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 justices wrote in an unsigned statement that accompanied the code.
‘More like a friendly suggestion’
The ethics issue has vexed the court for several months, over a series of stories questioning the practices of the justices. Many of those stories focused on Justice Clarence Thomas and his failure to disclose travel, other hospitality and additional financial ties with wealthy conservative donors including Harlan Crow and the Koch brothers. But Justices Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor also have been under scrutiny.
Liberal critics of the court were not satisfied with the new code of ethics, with one group saying it “reads a lot more like a friendly suggestion than a binding, enforceable guideline”.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, one of the loudest voices complaining about the court’s ethical shortcomings, was among several leading Democrats who mixed praise for the court with a call to do more.
“This is a long-overdue step by the justices, but a code of ethics is not binding unless there is a mechanism to investigate possible violations and enforce the rules. The honour system has not worked for members of the Roberts Court,” he said.
Senator Dick Durbin, who chairs the Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee, called the code a “step in the right direction.” But he 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”.
Public trust in and approval of the court is hovering near record lows, according to a Gallup Poll released just before the court’s new term began on October 2.
The court faces 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 enrolment.