Concerns about conflicts of interest have prompted a nonpartisan watchdog organization to call for a code of ethics
for Supreme Court
Surprisingly, unlike other judges
, Supreme Court justices lack an official code of conduct with clear ethical obligations, and their ethical decisions cannot be overturned by a higher court because there is none.
The creation of a code of conduct was one of several recommendations in a report issued Thursday by the Project on Government Oversight to “enhance the legitimacy” of the nation’s highest court amid vicious political infighting over judicial confirmation.
“No ethics? No problem! We're the Supremes!” joked Walter Shaub
, former director of the Office
of Government Ethics and now a senior fellow at POGO.
“The Supreme Court is one of the most powerful and least accountable bodies in government, and it has no code of ethics, which needs to change,” Shaub said in a statement, calling the situation a “disgrace.” He added that the “time has come for the Supreme Court to adopt a code of ethics or for Congress
to impose one on it.”
The report, released
by a panel of former judges and legal scholars convened by POGO last year, also called for reforming the court's "approach to ethics and recusal," as well as the "accessibility
and transparency" of its notoriously opaque decision-making.
The panel also suggested increasing the number of seats on the court, imposing term limits, and having smaller panels of justices hear cases rather than all nine presiding over each one in order to break up static voting
blocks. All of the former judges on POGO's panel were appointed by Republican
governors or presidents.
Recently, there has been a surge in interest in a code of conduct, owing to some unusual circumstances involving new conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett
Barrett refused to recuse herself this year from a case involving the right-wing dark-money group Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which spent at least $1 million to push her own confirmation through the Senate
Barrett vigorously participated in the proceedings, didn't reveal her connection to the organization, and voted with the majority, handing the foundation a victory to keep its donors secret.
Barrett also did not recuse herself from a case against the Royal Dutch Shell
oil company, her father's employer for 29 years, in which the city of Baltimore
sued Shell, BP, and several other oil companies for damages caused by climate change
. Justice Samuel Alito, who owns stock in several oil and gas
companies, did recuse himself from the case.
Barrett received a $2 million advance for a book about the court in April
, reportedly with a conservative imprint of Penguin Random House
. Will she recuse herself from any future case involving Penguin Random House — or a competitor of the company that is paying her $2 million?
Other justices who have published books
while on the bench face similar quandaries.
And she is far from the first Justice to turn her high office into a profit center; others currently sitting on the high court have done the same. What does ethics have to do with justice? A lot. What does ethics have to do with a Justice? Nothing, it appears. — Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) April 19, 2021
Sonia Sotomayor: My Beloved World 2013, Stephen Breyer
: Making Our Democracy Work
: a Judge's View 2010, Clarence Thomas: My Grandfather's Son: a Memoir
2007, Neil Gorsuch: A Republic, If You Can Keep It 2019 — Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) April 19, 2021
In a notorious case from 2003, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia went hunting
and dined with his longtime friend Vice President Dick Cheney while Cheney was on the Supreme Court, a situation that would not have been tolerated by a lower court judge.
Scalia decided for himself in a memorandum about his apparent conflict of interest, “I do not believe my impartiality can reasonably be questioned.” Scalia hung out with Cheney three weeks after the court decided to hear a case over whether the White House
had to turn over documents relating to the energy
task force Cheney headed in 2001.