United States Supreme Court Building in Washington DC STOCK PHOTO AND WIKIPEDIA.COM
The United States Supreme Court announced on Monday that it has generated a “Code of Conduct for Justices.” The new code of conduct was signed by all nine of the current justices sitting on the Supreme Court bench. The “Code of Conduct for Justices” comes on the heels of growing criticism by the public and Democrats in response to several problematic occurrences of suspected impropriety on the part of Justice Clarence Thomas and the apparent right wing sponsored effort to abolish the federal protections of reproductive health for women in the landmark Roe V. Wade decision last year. The “Code of Conduct for Justices” is made up of five canons outlining ethical decorum principles that all justices on the Supreme Court bench have agreed to maintain.
A closer look at the new code reveals that the Supreme Court justices have listened to the criticism that has been leveled against selective justices including accusations of being wooed by right-wing interest groups and wealthy patrons. But the questions that remain are: Should the U.S. Supreme Court be only accountable to itself? If one of the nine justices violates the “Code of Conduct for Justices” what are the consequences?
The “Code of Conduct for Justices” opens in a somewhat ominous fashion by stating that the Supreme Court already has “a body of rules derived from a variety of sources, including statutory provisions” so that the “Code of Conduct” is not “new.”
However, the Supreme Court concedes that without a “Code of Conduct” there has been a “misunderstanding that the Justices…regard themselves as unrestricted by an ethical rules.” It would appear on the surface that the justices are singling out Justice Clarence Thomas and by doing so dismissing Thomas’ claims that he did not know that he was acting in an unethical manner by receiving multimillion dollar “gifts” in the form of luxury vacations, private jet usage, and the sale of his mother’s property through the ‘generosity’ of billionaire business tycoon Harlan Crow.
Crow had reportedly for the past 20 years taken Justice Thomas, and his wife Ginni, on exclusive vacations on his super yacht around the world, to allmale retreats in California, and helped to fund a Tea Party group headed by Ginni for a cool half a million dollars, with a salary. Harlan Crow said in a statement that despite the way it may look on the surface to the public, “We have never sought to influence Justice Thomas on any legal or political issue.” The reality is that Clarence Thomas did accept the “hospitality” and “gifts” from Harlan Crow, and it cannot be said that this relationship did not influence or have a direct bearing on the judicial decisions authored by Thomas. In the acceptance of these “gifts,” Thomas violated Canon 2 of the “Code of Conduct for Justices” which states “a Justice should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities.”
Yet while compiling a general catalogue of ethical behavior or standards that should be adhered to by all nine Justices on the bench, and any future Supreme Court justices, the “Code of Conduct for Justices” is still vague where it comes to the acceptance of “gifts” on the part of those elite members of the bench. Instead, the “Code of Conduct” refers to the “Judicial Conference Regulations Gifts.” According to the “Gift Regulations Judiciary Guide,” gifts can be received on special occasions, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. “so long as conflict of interests are avoided.” A gift can also be accepted by judicial employees and their family members “so long as the gift is of the type that is customarily provided to others in similar circumstances and is not offered because of the judicial ofﬁcer’s ofﬁcial position.”
But while other members of the judiciary and federal branch are beholden to the “Gift Regulations Judiciary Guide,” the Supreme Court justices voluntarily agreed to abide by the regulations set forth meaning that they have leeway to interpret what is appropriate and convenient for them to follow. The “Code of Conduct for Justices” does not address this matter and nor does it offer any suggestions of disciplinary action for members of the Supreme Court who violate the “Judiciary Guide.” In Canon 4, section D, Financial Activities, it reads that “a Justice should comply with the restrictions of gifts and the prohibition on solicitation of gifts set forth in the Judicial Conference Regulations on Gifts now in effect. A Justice should endeavor to prevent any member of the Justice’s family residing in the household from soliciting or accepting a gift to the extent that a Justice would be permitted to do so.” But what happens if said justice’s family members, or spouse, like Ginni Thomas, decided to overlook that clause? What are the consequences, if any?
The Supreme Court’s “Code of Conduct for Justices” appears as a guide of regulatory principles for the justices to follow. On a closer look, the “Code of Conduct” is nothing but a gloriﬁed fluff of documentation. The “Code of Conduct” does not hold the Justices accountable, nor does it aim for selfregulation. The Supreme Court remains untethered and free to operate as it sees ﬁt. That is why there must be a “Code of Conduct” drafted and enacted by Congress that provides the necessary oversight of the Supreme Court. Yes. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, but it should not be allowed to operate without the same ethical principles that dictate the actions of federal and district judges, along with the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The nine justices of the Supreme Court have placed a band aid on a gaping wound. The “Code of Conduct for Justices” only offers more concrete evidence that the Supreme Court Justices believe themselves to be untouchable and only accountable to themselves as a body, and not to the Americans people under whom they serve for life.