WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court adopted an ethics code on Monday amid claims that its justices have violated laws and standards followed by the rest of the judiciary.
Although the high court said it has long abided by common law ethics rules, criticism in recent years pushed the bench to clarify any misunderstanding over standards on the court.
“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 court 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.”
Derived from standards used by other judges, the court said its new code was adapted to the justices' unique needs. The code was written to allow the justices some wiggle room on interpretation, broad in some areas and narrow in others. The court expressed concern over forcing the justices to comply with regulations that would make it impossible to conduct the court's work.
“This concern is heightened with respect to canons applicable to Justices of the Supreme Court, given the often sharp disagreement concerning matters of great import that come before the Supreme Court,” the court wrote in commentary attached to the code. “These canons must be understood in that light.”
The court did not specify how it would force compliance with the new code. However, Chief Justice John Roberts has directed court officers to examine best practices from other courts to do so.
“The court will assess whether it needs additional resources in its clerk’s office or Office of Legal Counsel to perform initial and ongoing review of recusal and other ethics issues,” the court wrote. “The court will also consider whether amendments to its rules on the disclosure obligations of parties and counsel may be advisable.”
The high court has eschewed adopting a code of conduct like the one federal judges observe, which involves upholding the integrity and independence of the judiciary and avoiding actual and assumed impropriety both on and off the bench.
Over the past year, however, media reports of the justices’ potential wrongdoings fueled criticism of the justices' lack of an ethics code. In April, ProPublica kicked off a barrage of coverage on high court ethics when it reported on Justice Clarence Thomas’ gifts from a billionaire Republican megadonor. The reporting described Thomas’ relationship with Harlan Crow, detailing the dozens of private jet flights and luxury vacations the Bush appointee accepted in gifts.
Crow’s gifts to Thomas were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — far above the $415 threshold for gifts under federal disclosure laws. The Texas real estate mogul also reportedly paid for Thomas’ grandnephew's private school education and bought the justice’s childhood home. Thomas’ mandated yearly financial reports did not include the gifts described by ProPublica.
Thomas did not limit himself to only Crow’s generosity. The conservative justice also reportedly accepted a private jet flight from the Koch network in 2018 to attend the group’s private conference. The political organizing group often supports cases before the court.
Justice Samuel Alito faced scrutiny for accepting a private jet flight and luxury Alaska vacation from hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer. He took the rare step of responding to these allegations in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, arguing the “charges” against him were false. Alito did not deny riding on the private jet, nor taking the trip, but claimed his behavior did not violate ethics guidelines.