The Supreme Court indicated Monday it will adopt a code of conduct amid heightened scrutiny over the high court’s standards when it comes to undisclosed gifts and trips.
In a statement released alongside the 15-page code, the justices said the court’s rules and principles are, for the most part, “not new.” However, “codification” of existing principles is meant to clear up concerns about the justices operating without oversight.
“The absence of a Code … 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 reads. “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 new code details five “canons,” or rules, each of the nine justices agreed to abide by, many drawing lines in the sand on political activity and fundraising.
One of those principals directs any Supreme Court justice to “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities.” That means that family, social, political, financial or other relationships should not influence official conduct or judgment, the code reads.
“A Justice should neither knowingly lend the prestige of the judicial office to advance the private interests of the Justice or others nor knowingly convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the Justice,” the code reads.
The new code describes instances where justices should decline speaking engagements, including where an event is sponsored by or associated with a political entity or a group with financial interest in the outcome of a case before the court. It also directs the justices — and their family members, including spouses — to comply with restrictions imposed by the Judicial Conference on gift acceptance.
The Supreme Court’s ethics came under fire after a series of reports detailed various undisclosed luxury trips, gifts and questionable extrajudicial activities involving multiple justices. Those revelations increased interest in congressional oversight of the justices’ behavior.
Among those notable reports was one by ProPublica earlier this year, which reported that Justice Clarence Thomas failed to disclose travel and other financial ties with wealthy conservative donors, including Harlan Crow and the Koch brothers. Thomas’ wife, longtime right-wing activist Ginni Thomas, also reignited questions about her husband’s impartiality after attending the pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
ProPublica also reported that Justice Samuel Alito accepted a flight on the private jet of billionaire Paul Singer, who has had cases before the court. Alito was flown to Alaska on a private jet to take an expensive fishing trip in 2008 with the hedge fund billionaire, and he did not report the trip on his financial disclosures. Leonard Leo, a conservative judicial activist, organized the trip, according to the news outlet.
And the Associated Press reported accusations that Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s staff pushed colleges to purchase her books when she traveled to their schools. Sotomayor previously received criticism for not recusing herself from multiple cases involving Penguin Random House, which published her books and provided her payments totaling more than $3 million, according to her financial disclosures.
As part of the code’s implementation, Chief Justice John Roberts directed court officers to examine “best practices,” drawing on some federal and state court rules.
The ethics code marks the first time the Supreme Court has made official any rules governing the nation’s highest court.
Updated 3:21 p.m.