The U.S. Supreme Court Building
The U.S. Supreme Court Building

The U.S. Supreme Court, its pub­lic approval rat­ings and rep­u­ta­tion sag­ging, is respond­ing with a new code of con­duct in which the nine jus­tices decide by them­selves the “best prac­tices” for avoid­ing con­flicts of inter­est and recusal from pend­ing cases.

In words of John McK­ay, for­mer U.S. Attor­ney for West­ern Wash­ing­ton: “The ‘code’ was only issued to clean up ‘mis­un­der­stand­ings’ accord­ing to Chief Jus­tice John Roberts. Like, mis­un­der­stand­ing that you prob­a­bly shouldn’t accept a lux­u­ry RV worth a quar­ter of a mil­lion dol­lars or lux­u­ry trips from per­sons with inter­ests before the court.”

The code asks jus­tices not to play a part in cas­es where they have a pro­fes­sion­al con­nec­tion or per­son­al inter­est. Com­pli­ance is entire­ly vol­un­tary and based the judg­ment of the jus­tice. By con­trast, U.S. Court of Appeals and Dis­trict Court judges are required to com­ply with a fed­er­al Judi­cial Con­duct and Dis­abil­i­ty Act.

While try­ing to be char­i­ta­ble, court crit­ic Sen­a­tor Shel­don White­house, D‑Rhode Island, point­ed to the document’s glar­ing defi­cien­cy. “This is a long over­due step by the jus­tices,” said White­house, “but a code of ethics is only bind­ing if there is a mech­a­nism to inves­ti­gate pos­si­ble vio­la­tions and enforce the rules.”

In observ­ing behav­ior of the cur­rent jus­tices, one is remind­ed of words of detec­tive Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun movie: “Noth­ing to See Here.”

The Dobbs deci­sion, over­turn­ing Roe v. Wade, was writ­ten by Supreme Court Jus­tice Samuel Ali­to. Weeks after it was issued, Ali­to was flown to Rome by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Notre Dame Law School’s Reli­gious Lib­er­ty Initiative.

Ali­to was fea­tured speak­er at a gala din­ner in which he thanked the group for its “warm hos­pi­tal­i­ty” and pro­vid­ing a room which “looks over the Roman Forum.” He deliv­ered a snarky speech mock­ing crit­ics of his abor­tion ruling.

The justice’s hosts were a group which has filed numer­ous “friend of the court” briefs in pend­ing cases.

An inves­ti­ga­tion by ProP­ub­li­ca dis­closed that Supreme Court Jus­tice Clarence Thomas and wife Gin­ny have tak­en vaca­tions on pri­vate jets and lux­u­ry yachts, the prop­er­ty of bil­lion­aire friend Har­lan Crow.

The val­ue of these trips are in the hun­dreds of thou­sands of dollars.

Yet, Thomas dis­closed none of this trav­el in his finan­cial fil­ings. Gin­ny Thomas was active in Pres­i­dent Trump’s bid to over­turn results of the 2020 elec­tion. Yet, Thomas did not recuse him­self from cas­es involv­ing the attempt­ed coup.

All this is noth­ing new.

In 2001, Jus­tice Antonin “Nino” Scalia flew down to Louisiana on Air Force Two with then-Vice Cheney for a duck hunt­ing trip host­ed by an oil indus­try exec­u­tive. At the time, a legal chal­lenge to Cheney’s deci­sion to keep secret pro­ceed­ings of his ener­gy task force was pend­ing before the Supreme Court.

The Sier­ra Club chal­lenged Scalia to recuse him­self from the case.

Scalia angri­ly refused, declar­ing in a state­ment: “If it is rea­son­able to think that a Supreme Court jus­tice can be bought so cheap, the nation is in deep­er trou­ble than I imagined.”

Lib­er­als, too, can play the con­flict game. The Sier­ra Club was plain­tiff in a chal­lenge to the U.S. For­est Ser­vice deci­sion to approve Disney’s plans for a big ski resort in California’s Min­er­al King val­ley. Supreme Court Jus­tice William O. Dou­glas was a direc­tor of the club. “Wild Bill” resigned from the board and par­tic­i­pat­ed in the case, writ­ing a famous dis­sent when the brethren ruled that the Sier­ra Club lacked stand­ing to sue. (Dis­ney lat­er can­celed the Min­er­al King resort and the val­ley became part of Sequoia Nation­al Park. It is still wild.)

Supreme Court Jus­tice Ele­na Kagan has recused her­self from cas­es han­dled when she was Solic­i­tor Gen­er­al and sug­gest­ed the need for a code of ethics. “Our whole sys­tem is one of checks and bal­ances: We’re not impe­r­i­al and we too are part of a check­ing and bal­anc­ing sys­tem in var­i­ous ways,” she told a judi­cial con­fer­ence this sum­mer in Portland.

But Roberts sound­ed irri­ta­ble unveil­ing the code, as if a press had forced this unwel­come action on the Court. “The absence of a code has led in recent years to the mis­un­der­stand­ing that the jus­tices of the court, unlike all oth­er jurists in this coun­try, regard them­selves as unre­strict­ed by ethics rules,” he wrote. “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.”

Oh, c’mon. As Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia law pro­fes­sor Aman­da Frost told the New York Times, “The prob­lem is how to give these rules teeth. Espe­cial­ly in light of the fact that there have been repeat­ed vio­la­tions of these very rules.”

Just look at Clarence Thomas.

He has trav­eled the world on Har­lan Crow’s tick­et. He paid the $6,000-a-month board­ing school tuition for Thomas’ grand­nephew. He spent $133,000 to buy prop­er­ties in Savan­nah, Geor­gia, from Thomas and his rel­a­tives, one of which is a house in which Thomas’ moth­er still lives. None of these deals was reported.

Thomas nev­er repaid a “sub­stan­tial por­tion” of a $267,230 loan from anoth­er wealthy friend, Antho­ny Weller, that was used to buy a lux­u­ry RV, accord­ing to a Sen­ate Finance Com­mit­tee inves­ti­ga­tion. It is unclear whether he paid tax­es on a “sig­nif­i­cant amount of tax­able income” real­ized by not repay­ing the loan. The RV loan was nev­er report­ed on the justice’s finan­cial dis­clo­sure form.

The bil­lion­aire bud­dy of Jus­tice Ali­to flew the judge on his pri­vate jet to Alaska’s Bris­tol Bay for a fish­ing trip, with stay at the King Salmon Lodge.

Ali­to has jus­ti­fied fail­ure to report the trip on grounds that it con­sti­tut­ed “per­son­al hos­pi­tal­i­ty.” Besides, Ali­to has respond­ed, he was occu­py­ing “a seat that, as far as I am aware, would have oth­er­wise been vacant.”

In his 2011 report on con­di­tion of the fed­er­al judi­cia­ry, Chief Jus­tice Roberts declared: “I have com­plete con­fi­dence in the capa­bil­i­ty of my col­leagues to deter­mine when recusal is war­rant­ed.” They were, he declared, “jurists of excep­tion­al integri­ty and (unques­tioned) char­ac­ter and fitness.”

Such is not always the case, espe­cial­ly as sug­gest­ed by actions of Thomas.

He has sim­ply ignored the code of con­duct which the court is now adopt­ing. As Sen­a­tor White­house points out: “Jus­tices are sup­posed to recuse them­selves from cas­es where they have a per­son­al inter­est but Thomas has nev­er been asked about his wife’s Jan­u­ary 6 (2021) role and what he knew.”

The Supreme Court is jus­ti­fi­ably referred to in news sto­ries as “the high court.” There is none higher.

But our democ­ra­cy is anchored on the prin­ci­ple of account­abil­i­ty. It’s time for the Supremes to drop anchor on some con­crete requirements.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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