Supreme Court Implements Extremely Vague Code of Ethics

The Supreme Court has adopted its first-ever code of ethics, the justices announced Monday. The move comes in the wake of increased scrutiny into Justice Clarence Thomas’ close relationship with Nazi-obsessed billionaire and GOP donor Harlan Crow, including gifts and trips funded by Crow that Thomas failed to disclose.

The court has faced public pressure to implement a code of ethics after news about Thomas’ ethically dubious relationship broke, followed by reports of other justices failing to disclose certain benefits.

In a 14-page document, the court outlined the code, which charges justices with “uphold[ing] the integrity and independence of the judiciary” and states that justices “should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities,” in addition to three other ethical cannons.

“The undersigned justices are promulgating this Code of Conduct to set out succinctly and gather in one place the ethics rules and principles that guide the conduct of the Members of the Court,” the justices wrote in a statement prefacing the code. The code does not include details on how or if it will be enforced, and disclosures are still voluntary.

Thomas is not the only justice who has been accused of failing to disclose benefits. Justice Samuel Alito reportedly accepted an Alaskan vacation from Republican donors that he did not disclose, and Justice Sonja Sotomayor’s staff has reportedly urged public institutions where she held speaking engagements to purchase her memoir or children’s books. Thomas and Alito have defended their failure to disclose certain trips under a “personal hospitality” provision that exists in the law.

In the statement accompanying the ethics document, the court also addressed the apparent lack of such a code until now and characterized criticism regarding recent ethics scandals as a “misunderstanding” of the court and its ethics. “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,” the justices wrote. “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.”

Democratic lawmakers have called out the court for failing to address alleged ethics violations and have pushed for legislation that would create ethical oversight. Last week, Sen. Dick Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that the justices could temper criticism by implementing an ethics code. Durbin and colleagues introduced a bill in February of this year that would require the Judicial Conference of the United States to create a code of ethical conduct for the Supreme Court.

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