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Supreme Court adopts ethics code in wake of controversial gifts to justices

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday adopted a code of ethics following several high-profile investigations disclosed justices receiving unreported gifts from wealthy benefactors. File Photo by Jemal Countess/UPI

Nov. 13 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday published a new code of ethics following a series of high-profile accounts of several justices accepting travel and other benefits from wealthy backers.

The code, published on the court's website, lists five "canons" by which justices are expected to abide, including sections pertaining to avoiding "impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities" and "extrajudicial activities that are consistent with the obligations of the judicial office."

Critics, however, quickly noted the new code of conduct lacks any enforcement mechanisms and contains lower standards than similar judicial ethics guidelines enforced in lower courts.


In introducing the code, Chief Justice John Roberts said that while the court has long had the equivalent of "common law" ethics rules, the absence of an official 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.

"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," he wrote.

The high court's lack of a formal ethics code came into sharp focus this year when investigative reports by ProPublica exposed decades of luxury travel by Justice Clarence Thomas provided by several billionaire Republican Party megadonors such as Harlan Crow, David Sokol and H. Wayne Huizenga.

Reporters documented that while Thomas enjoyed dozens of lavish vacations and other perks paid for by wealthy benefactors over a 20-year period, he failed to note the gifts on his financial disclosure reports.

The same media outlet in June reported that fellow Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito accepted a luxury Alaskan fishing excursion in 2008 from hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, whose business was the subject of several high court rulings in which Alito failed to recuse himself.

Those disclosures led to political pressure from Senate Democrats as Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, led an effort to set a law requiring the Supreme Court to adopt an enforceable ethics code, which passed the committee along party lines in July.

On Monday, Durbin said on the Senate floor that while the new code was a "good beginning" at restoring public confidence in the high court's ethics, it lacked any kind of enforcement mechanism.

While praising its canons on the independence of the judiciary and avoiding perceptions of impropriety, Durbin said the code's provisions "fall short of what we could and should expect when a Supreme Court issues a code of conduct."

Calling the court's previous actions "plainly inadequate," the Democrat said the new code "does not appear to contain any meaningful enforcement mechanism to hold justices accountable for any violations" and also leaves "a wide range of decisions up to the discretion of the individual justices," including decisions on recusals from cases due to ethical concerns.

The nonprofit watchdog group Citizens for Ethics called the court's action "an important step forward" that acknowledges the need for "our highest court, like virtually every workplace in America, to have a code of conduct, but the rules contain too many loopholes and gaps to be truly effective."