The Supreme Court issued its first-ever code of conduct on Monday after reports of undisclosed trips by justices and other favors that put pressure on the justices to adopt a set of ethical rules. The document said it largely compiled practices the justices had informally followed. The lack of a formal document “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,” it says, reports the Wall Street Journal.. “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 code says justices can seek guidance from colleagues, judicial decisions, lower court judges, the Supreme Court’s in-house legal counsel, “and from scholars, scholarly treatises, and articles.” It creates no ethics office or adviser and doesn’t provide penalties for violation of ethical standards.
All nine justices signed the document, which suggests that it may not be binding on future appointees unless they affirmatively accept the code. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a leading critic of the justices’ conduct and the court’s conservative direction, said there was more work to do. “This is a long-overdue step by the justices, but a code of ethics is not binding unless there is a mechanism to investigate possible violations and enforce the rules. The honor system has not worked for members of the [Chief Justice John] Roberts Court,” he said. Reports by ProPublica and other news organizations detailed previously undisclosed vacations and other favors wealthy benefactors have provided Justice Clarence Thomas, along with questionable conduct by several other justices. That led some lawmakers who have long called for the court to adopt an ethical code to renew their scrutiny of the court. The Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Democrats, approved legislation that would tighten standards for the Supreme Court. The bill would create a complaint process and allow chief judges from lower courts to investigate and make recommendations in response.