In response to ongoing criticism surrounding undisclosed trips and gifts received by some justices, the Supreme Court has introduced its inaugural code of ethics. Issued on Monday, the policy aims to address concerns over the lack of transparency regarding interactions between justices and wealthy benefactors.
The move comes after a series of stories questioned the ethical practices of certain justices, with particular attention on Justice Clarence Thomas and his failure to disclose ties with conservative donors like Harlan Crow and the Koch brothers. Justices Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor have also faced scrutiny.
In an unsigned statement, the justices emphasized their historical adherence to ethical standards but acknowledged the need for a formal code. They stated, “The absence of a Code, however, has led in recent years to the misunderstanding that the Justices of this Court, unlike all other jurists in this country, 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.”
Public trust in the court has been waning, as reflected in a recent Gallup Poll, prompting calls for greater transparency and accountability. Chief Justice John Roberts and three other justices, Amy Coney Barrett, Elena Kagan, and Brett Kavanaugh, have expressed support for implementing an ethics code in recent months.
The new code addresses concerns about conflicts of interest, impartial review panels for recusal decisions, transparency around gifts received by justices, and a framework for investigating and enforcing disclosure violations.
The move follows Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin’s call for the justices to proactively address ethics concerns to mitigate criticism and potential legislative interventions. Durbin’s committee has been investigating the court’s ethics and passed an ethics code, but it faced opposition from Republicans.
The push for an ethics code gained momentum following investigative reports on relationships between justices and wealthy individuals. ProPublica’s stories detailed Thomas’ connections with Crow, including vacations and property transactions, while the Associated Press reported on Alito’s fishing trip and Sotomayor’s book promotions.
The court’s prior step in the spring, with a joint statement on ethics principles and practices, did not quell concerns. The latest development aims to enhance transparency and accountability within the nation’s highest court, seeking to address the challenges raised by critics and public perception.