The Supreme Court has — for the first time — officially adopted a Code of Conduct in light of recent allegations that Justices have engaged in unethical behavior.
The fifteen-page document — signed by all nine Justices — includes a brief introduction, five canons, and a lengthy commentary.
According to the Justices, these standards of conduct are nothing new for Justicies, but in light of recent allegations, they have decided to put them down in writing to “dispel” misunderstandings and preserve the integrity of the Court.
“For the most part these rules and principles are not new: The Court has long had the
equivalent of common law ethics rules, that is, a body of rules derived from a variety of sources,” the introduction reads. “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,” the Justices write in the introduction.
Among the five canons laid out in the Code of Conduct are:
- Upholding “the integrity and independence of the judiciary”
- Avoiding “Impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities”
- Performing “the duties of office fairly, impartially, and diligently”
- Engaging “in extrajudicial activities that are consistent with the obligations of the judicial office”
- Refraining “from political activity”
“The Office of Legal Counsel will maintain specific guidance tailored to recurring ethics and financial disclosure issues and will continue to provide annual training on those issues to Justices, chambers staff, and other Court personnel,” the Code’s commentary portion concludes.
The issuance of an official Code of Conduct for the first time in the Court’s history comes amidst a push from Senate Democrats to impose a code of ethics upon the Justice, complete with independent oversight and enforcement — a move that all the Justices have found to be constitutionally problematic.
That said, this is not the first time that discussion of a code of conduct for the Justices has come up.
Nearly four and a half years ago, Justice Elena Kagan revealed in testimony before a House subcommittee that Chief Justice John Roberts had been studying the possibility of adopting a code of ethics for the Court.
Responsible for the latest push to impose formal regulations on the Court’s behavior, however, are several controversies that have come to light in the past few months surrounding a handful of Justices.
Most recently, Justice Clarence Thomas was accused of having undisclosed financial ties to a wealthy GOP donor and taking luxury vacations at his expense.
Justice Samuel Alito also allegedly accepted and failed to disclose a private jet flight to an Alaskan fishing lodge.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor has been accused of utilizing her taxpayer-funded staffers to promote her new book to students on college campuses.
All three of the Justices in question have subsequently denied any wrongdoing.
Nonetheless, recent polling from Gallup has found that public approval of the Supreme Court is at a near-record low of 41 percent.
Also approaching a historic-low is public trust and confidence in the Court, which is currently sitting at just 49 percent.
Several Justices have publicly stated their support for adopting a Code of Conduct, expressing the hope that it would help to increase the American people’s confidence in the Court’s decisions.
Last month, Justice Amy Coney Barrett said that it would be a “good idea” for the Court to adopt a code of ethics.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh said in September that he was “hopeful” a code of this kind would be adopted by the Court and that it might “increase confidence” in their work.
Earlier this year, Justice Elena Kagan said that a Code of Conduct would be “a good thing” for the Court, noting that the previous absence of one did not mean that the Justices did not follow any rules.
It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court’s new Code of Conduct will serve to bolster public confidence in the Justices and the rulings that they issue.