The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Monday the adoption of its first-ever code of conduct to govern the ethical behavior of the nine Justices. This comes after months of scrutiny over undisclosed trips and interactions some Justices had with wealthy donors.
The nine-page code outlines restrictions on Justices’ external relationships, fundraising activities, acceptance of gifts, and use of judicial resources for personal matters. It instructs Justices to avoid allowing outside influences on their conduct and makes clear they should not substantially use staff for non-official work. Additionally, the code states Justices considering speaking engagements should assess if it risks an impropriety perception.
While some viewed the code as a good first step, others noted the lack of an enforcement mechanism if rules are violated. The voluntary code was adopted in the wake of several reports detailing potential ethics issues – particularly around Justice Clarence Thomas’ undisclosed luxury trips and connections to major GOP donor Harlan Crow. Additional reports found similar issues around trips taken by Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Sonia Sotomayor.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said the code moves in the right direction but stopped short of being sufficient, holding open the possibility of legislative action. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer echoed this, calling enforcement a “glaring omission.” Experts like Steven Lubet from Northwestern University Law School commended addressing public demands but noted continuing recusal concerns. How the Court applies the new rules going forward will demonstrate its commitment beyond rebutting criticism.
The ethical scrutiny stems from declining approval of the Court’s recent highly politicized rulings on abortion, guns, and affirmative action along ideological lines. Undisclosed benefits from wealthy backers threatened the public trust in the Justices’ impartiality. While a start, the voluntary code without compliance ensures ongoing debate around stronger safeguards for the highest court’s integrity and independence. Only time will tell if this eases transparency issues or was a temporary measure to withstand legislative pressure.