The Supreme Court’s “not new” code of ethics largely codifies existing judicial rules


The Supreme Court’s “not new” code of ethics largely codifies existing judicial rules

David G Savage

November 13, 2023

The Supreme Court issued a code of conduct for itself for the first time on Monday, but it admitted that the rules are “not new” and simply reiterate principles that the justices have long followed.

The announcement said the justices hoped the code would “remove this misunderstanding” that they “regard themselves as not limited by any ethical rules.”

But this modest effort is unlikely to end the controversy stirred by Judge Clarence Thomas and his free, luxury vacations, paid for by Texas real estate billionaire Harlan Crow.

That’s because there is still no enforcement mechanism behind the court’s code of conduct, and judges remain free to decide for themselves whether certain gifts or travel across a border are prohibited.

All federal judges already follow the same code of conduct, but unlike judges, they can face an investigation or even a reprimand for an ethics violation.

The Supreme Court has maintained that its judiciary is independent and not subject to oversight from outside authorities.

ProPublica and other news organizations revealed that Thomas has regularly accepted large and secret gifts that came to him only because he sits on the nation’s highest court.

They include a decade of free luxury vacations and Crow private jet travel. Private school tuition for the child Thomas raised was paid for, as was the purchase and renovation of his mother’s home in Savannah.

Thomas turned to another wealthy friend to pay $267,000 to buy him a luxury recreational vehicle.

Ethics laws prohibit judges from accepting gifts from people “whose interests could be substantially harmed” by a decision.

Judges are required to disclose the costs of travel and subsistence expenses paid by others. And they are required by law to step aside or refrain from deciding cases where their “impartiality could reasonably be questioned.”


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