The Supreme Court unveiled a formal ethics code this week amid scrutiny from the media and Congress over concerns that the justices have failed to properly disclose gifts and did not recuse themselves in cases in which they might have a conflict of interest.
A 15-page document, featuring a statement at the top and a “Code of Conduct” below, was posted to the high court’s website on Monday. All nine members, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, signed off on adhering to the five “canon” rules.
The five canons, many of which included subsections, said a justice “should uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary,” “should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities,” “should perform the duties of office fairly, impartially, and diligently,” “may engage in extrajudicial activities that are consistent with the obligations of the judicial office,” and “should refrain from political activity.”
A “statement of the Court” offered a brief explanation for drawing out an ethics code without getting into specific media reports on ethical questions and a lack of transparency that have dogged conservative justices, including Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, as well as liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor in recent months while fueling an investigation led by the Democrat-led Senate Judiciary Committee.
“The undersigned Justices are promulgating this Code of Conduct to set out succinctly and gather in one place the ethics rules and principles that guide the conduct of the Members of the Court,” the statement said.
“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, including statutory provisions, the code that applies to other members of the federal judiciary, ethics advisory opinions issued by the Judicial Conference Committee on Codes of Conduct, and historic practice,” the statement added.
“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,” the statement said. “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.”