Code of ethics a must for U.S. Supreme Court

Other Editors

It was never realistic to expect that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. would go before Congress for a clobbering over Supreme Court ethics rules. But citizens are entitled to expect more from him than what they got this week after he decided not to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee: a “statement on ethics principles and practices” he released, which amounts to an insistence that existing rules are sufficient.

The chief justice would do well to reassure the public that his institution is taking ethics concerns seriously following revelations about his colleague Justice Clarence Thomas’s repeated failures to file full financial disclosure forms. Texas billionaire Harlan Crow, ProPublica reports, purchased properties in Savannah, Ga., from Justice Thomas and his close relatives, and he treated the justice to luxury trips, private jet and superyacht travel, and other gifts. The transactions undermine faith in the court when it’s already struggling to keep the people’s trust. Transparency and reform are in the court’s best interest, as well as the country’s.

This is only more important in light of a Politico article finding that the chief executive of one of the nation’s biggest law firms purchased a tract of land partly owned by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch. The deal rings far fewer alarm bells than the Thomas-Crow affair: The buyer has said he has never interacted with the justice — and didn’t even realize he was a party to the sale until it was well on its way to closing — at which point he referred the matter to his firm’s ethics department. What’s more, it looks as if Justice Gorsuch followed the filing instructions for the year in question. The issue, then, isn’t rule-breaking but rather how much justices should be obligated to report.

A request to investigate Justice Thomas’s more concerning alleged lapses has been referred to the U.S. Judicial Conference’s Committee on Financial Disclosure, consisting of 16 federal judges. Now it is their responsibility to ask for an accounting from the justice of all his reports, amended to add anything he previously neglected to include. Then they can determine whether to refer the matter to the Justice Department. But that’s a narrow answer to a much broader problem: The current system ensuring the Supreme Court’s integrity is inadequate.

Justice Elena Kagan told Congress four years ago that a code of conduct for the justices was under discussion. Yet nothing has emerged, and the principles and practices all nine justices signed on to this week is a poor substitute. Without such a set of standards, drawing distinctions between situations such as Justice Gorsuch’s land sale and Justice Thomas’s yearly lavish excursions is far more difficult. Answers to questions such as from whom justices should accept perks, how they should indicate they’ve accepted them and when they must recuse themselves from related cases remain unclear.

If the Supreme Court refuses to hold itself to account with a code of conduct, someone else will have to step in. Congress would encounter real separation of powers concerns in writing the judiciary’s rules for it. But a proposal from Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has promise: The legislation tells the Supreme Court it has to come up with rules within the year, without dictating what those rules should be.

Chief Justice Roberts and other justices have said in the past that they can’t be bound by all the same rules as lower court judges because of the Supreme Court’s unique constitutional role as the nation’s final decision-maker. Yet that’s the very reason its members should be held to exacting standards.

— The Washington Post


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