On Sunday, June 30, 2024, CBS News published an article examining the ethical quandaries currently facing the U.S. Supreme Court and how they are impacting public confidence in the institution.

Written by David Pogue, the article outlines how trust in the Supreme Court is at its lowest point according to research from the Pew Research Center. Many Americans disagreed with recent high-profile rulings from the Court on issues like abortion and campaign finance. Additionally, headlines about gifts received by some of the justices have further eroded trust.

The article discusses situations involving Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in particular. An investigation by ProPublica found Justice Thomas had accepted over $4 million worth of gifts from conservative billionaires over the years, including luxury vacations, private flights, sports tickets, tuition money for his son, and even a $267,000 recreational vehicle. Justice Alito meanwhile took a private jet flight to an expensive Alaskan fishing lodge courtesy of conservative donor Paul Singer, whose business later came before the Court in at least 10 cases.

While justices are allowed to receive meals and lodging as gifts, both Thomas and Alito failed to initially disclose these lavish gifts on their financial disclosure forms as required. They have denied any wrongdoing, however. Nancy Gertner, a professor at Harvard Law School and former federal judge, was quoted in the article saying their actions went beyond simple errors and that the scale of gifts to Justice Thomas in particular far exceeded anything received by liberal justices.

The spouses of Justices Thomas and Alito have also recently drawn scrutiny. Clarence Thomas’ wife Ginni was reported to have attended the January 6th rally and later texted then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, encouraging efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. Meanwhile, an upside-down American flag was spotted flying outside Samuel Alito’s home in the aftermath of January 6th, though Alito claims it was put up by his wife without his consent.

Given these situations, Judge Gertner argued both Thomas and Alito should recuse themselves from any January 6th-related cases due to clear appearances of potential bias or partiality. However, others like former independent counsel Robert Ray argued the actions of spouses should not require recusal. The article notes recusal standards revolve around whether a judge’s “impartiality might reasonably be questioned,” but what’s considered reasonable can be interpreted differently.

While there are judicial codes of ethics, the CBS News piece highlights there is no true enforcement for Supreme Court justices, who each make their own recusal decisions. One precedent involved former Justice Abe Fortas, who resigned in 1969 after it was discovered he had accepted $20,000 from a foundation and there was a bipartisan outcry.

Potential reforms discussed in the article included term limits, expanding the number of justices, or designating an inspector general for the Court. Impeachment was also mentioned as a constitutional remedy, but consensus from both parties in Congress would be unlikely. Without changes to increase accountability and restore public confidence, however, the article warned the very fabric of the rule of law risks becoming undermined.

In closing, the article outlined competing viewpoints on whether self-policing will suffice or if structural changes are ultimately necessary to strengthen integrity and trust in the Supreme Court as an institution. How to address this growing challenge remains as uncertain as the Court’s ethical standards in the eyes of the American public.

 

 

Source: CBS News