Supreme Court adopts ethics code after Clarence Thomas failed to disclose gifts from a billionaire—but there’s no way to enforce the new rules

THE Supreme Court The country adopted its first ethics code on Monday, amid sustained criticism over undisclosed travel and gifts from wealthy benefactors to some judges, but the code lacks enforcement.

Politicsaccepted by all nine judges, does not appear to impose any significant new requirements and leaves respect entirely to each judge.

Indeed, the justices said they have long adhered to ethical standards and suggested that criticism leveled at the court over ethics was the product of a misunderstanding rather than a misstep by the justices.

“The absence of a code has, however, led in recent years to a misunderstanding that the judges of this Court, unlike all other jurists in this country, consider themselves free from ethical rules,” the justices wrote in a statement unsigned. accompanied the code. “To clear up this misunderstanding, we are publishing this Code, which represents largely a codification of the principles that we have long considered to govern our conduct. »

The ethical question has preoccupied the Court for several months, through a series of stories calling into question the ethical practices of judges. Many of these stories focused on Justice Clarence Thomas and his failure to disclose his travel, other hospitality, and additional financial ties to wealthy conservative donors, including Harlan Raven And the Koch brothers. But the judges Samuel Alito And Sonia Sotomayor have also come under scrutiny.

In September, Justice Elena Kagan acknowledged that there were disagreements among the justices over the content of an ethics code, but did not specify what it was. The judges reached unanimous agreement on Monday, but, predictably, offered no explanation for how they got there.

The court’s liberal critics were not satisfied, with one group saying the code “feels much more like a friendly suggestion than a binding and enforceable guideline.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., one of the loudest voices lamenting the court’s ethical failings, mixed praise of the court with a call to do more.

“This is a long-awaited measure by judges, but a code of ethics is only binding if there is a mechanism to investigate possible violations and enforce the rules. The honor system did not work for members of the Roberts Court,” Whitehouse said.

A judicial ethics code proposed by Whitehouse, which would authorize the Senate Judiciary Committee without any Republican support, would allow lower court judges to file complaints and investigate. Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh And Kagan have expressed support for a code of ethics in recent months. In May, Chief Justice John Roberts said the court could do more to “adhere to the highest ethical standards” without providing details.

Public trust and approval of the court are near record levels, according to a Gallup poll released just before the court’s new term begins on October 2.

Just last week, Sen. Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the justices could assuage some criticism and Democratic pressure to impose an ethics code on the court by implementing their own code of ethics. policy.

The Durbin panel, which investigated the ethics of the court, planned to subpoena Crow and a conservative activist Leonard Leo on their role in organization and financing judges’ luxury trip.

Republicans complained that Democrats were mostly reacting to rulings they didn’t like from a court dominated by conservatives. including the cancellation of the national right to abortion.

The Democratic-backed ethics bill would also require judges to provide more information about potential conflicts of interest and written explanations for their decisions not to recuse themselves. It would also seek to improve transparency regarding gifts received by judges. The Democratic bill had little chance of becoming law in the Republican-controlled House, much less in the narrowly divided Senate.

The push for an ethics code was launched by a series of articles by the investigative news site ProPublica detailing the relationship between Crow and Thomas. Crow has been paying for almost annual vacations for more than two decades, purchased from Thomas and others. Georgia’s house in which the judge’s mother still lives and helped pay for a relative’s private education.

ProPublica also reported on Alito’s fishing trip to Alaska with a GOP donor, a trip Leo helped organize. The Associated Press reported that Sotomayor, aided by her team, has boosted her book sales through college visits over the past decade. The AP also reported that universities have used judges’ trips as a lure for financial contributions placing them in event rooms with wealthy donors.

The Court’s first ethical action in the spring also did not appease critics. Roberts declined Durbin’s invitation to testify before the Judiciary Committee, but the chief justice provided a “Statement of Ethical Principles and Practices” signed by all nine justices that outlined the ethical rules they follow when it comes to travel , gifts and external income.

The statement provided by Roberts said the nine justices “reaffirm and reaffirm the fundamental ethical principles and practices to which they subscribe in carrying out their responsibilities as members of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

The statement promised at least a little extra information when one or more of them chose not to participate in a case. But the judges were inconsistent in doing so Since.

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