A new paper released today by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law calls for the Supreme Court to create and adopt a public code of ethical conduct for sitting justices. The nine Supreme Court justices are the only judges in the United States who are not governed by such a code.
“Without a code of conduct, our country’s most powerful judges aren’t held to clear ethical standards,” said Alicia Bannon, Managing Director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and a co-author of the paper, titled Supreme Court Ethics Reform. “The Supreme Court should be a model for accountability, not the exception to the rule.”
The paper’s authors note that several Supreme Court justices have been accused of behaviors forbidden to other federal court judges, who are bound by the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges. This includes participating in partisan fundraisers, accepting expensive gifts, and failing to recuse themselves from cases with which they have apparent conflicts of interest. The paper also details the limited statutory provisions that exist to regulate Supreme Court ethics.
“The Supreme Court doesn’t need to wait for Congress to give itself a code of ethics. The justices can create and adopt one at any time,” Bannon says. “In failing to establish a code of ethical conduct, the Court has fallen behind the rest of the judiciary, not to mention many universities, companies, and other institutions that depend on the public’s trust.”
In addition to a code of ethical conduct, Bannon and her co-author, Brennan Center fellow Johanna Kalb, recommend strengthening rules governing gifts and financial disclosures and establishing a regular practice of explaining the Court’s recusal decisions.
On October 1, the justices will meet for their first conference since June, leading up to the next term’s arguments beginning on October 7. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has reportedly expressed interest in creating a code of ethical conduct for sitting justices.
Supreme Court Ethics Reform: The Need for an Ethics Code and Additional Transparency is available here.
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The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is a nonpartisan law and policy institute that works to reform, revitalize – and when necessary, defend – our country's systems of democracy and justice.