Supreme Court adopts ethics code after criticism

November 14, 2023

Responding to criticism over undisclosed gifts and travel by justices on both sides of the political aisle, the Supreme Court adopted an ethics code on Monday detailing what is acceptable and not acceptable conduct for justices. 

The nine-page code included, among other guidelines, restrictions on their ability to accept gifts and prohibitions on the use of court resources for non-court activities.

The court had not had any formal ethics code during its tenure, and a statement on the newly adopted code acknowledged that the lack of a code could have given the public the perception that the justices "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 statement said.

Much ado about nothing

Controversy around the ethics of Supreme Court Justices erupted earlier this year when it was revealed that Justice Clarence Thomas accepted gifts of travel and luxury accommodations from his longtime friend, billionaire and major GOP donor Harlan Crow.

Before rules were updated in March, the disclosure of such gifts was not required. Thomas said he had asked whether he should disclose them back when they began and was told he did not need to do so.

Crow was not involved in any Supreme Court litigation, so Thomas did not need to recuse himself from anything. Crow being a megadonor did not conflict with Thomas's lifetime appointment to the court, either.

 Still, the revelations caused a stir because Democrats thought they might be able to discredit Thomas enough to impeach him and replace him with a Democrat.

Why now?

Senate Democrats have since attempted to pass an ethics code as a check on the justices, but the legislation didn't have much of a chance of passing the House when it was little more than an attempt to punish Thomas.

The insinuations that conservative justices were acting unethically must have bothered them enough to take action on their own.

Interestingly enough, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg apparently violated the informal ethics code of the court several times toward the end of her life, twice accepting a $1 million prize from a leftist organization and then donating the money without disclosing anything.

She also didn't recuse herself in several cases involving litigants who had honored her and gave interviews criticizing former President Donald Trump.

Democrats never wanted to discredit her, however, so they kept her indiscretions under the rug. At least she was in the minority for much of that time, so her vote didn't end up being a deciding one.

The Supreme Court along with the House's extremely narrow Republican majority are the only checks on Democrat federal power right now, so it makes sense that they would want to discredit conservative justices in any way they can.

" A free people [claim] their rights, as derived from the laws of nature."
Thomas Jefferson
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