WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court announced Monday that it formally adopted what it called a new code of conduct after accusations of misconduct.
The court issued a 14-page document that included five canons of conduct on issues such as when judges must recuse themselves and what types of outside activities they can engage in.
“The undersigned justices are promulgating this Code of Conduct to succinctly establish and bring together in one place the ethical rules and principles that guide the conduct of members of the Court,” the justices said in an accompanying statement. All nine judges signed the declaration.
Most of the rules described in the code are not new in themselves, the statement said, but the lack of a published code “has led in recent years to the misunderstanding that the judges of this court, unlike all others jurists of this country, consider themselves as not restricted by any ethical rules.”
The code, based on rules followed by lower court judges, appears to be based on a statement that judges released in April saying that “reaffirm and reaffirm” his commitment to ethical principles, an announcement that failed to quell criticism.
Among other things, the code requires judges to “uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary” and “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities.”
The court has been under pressure to act since a series of reports raised questions about whether judges were following the rules.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have proposed legislation that would impose a new code of ethics on the court, and lawmakers say they are forced to act because the justices failed to do so.
The new rules say nothing about how complaints about ethical misconduct would be enforced, an omission exploited by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, R.I.
“This is a long overdue step for judges, but a code of ethics is not binding unless there is a mechanism to investigate potential violations and enforce the rules,” he said.
What he called the “honor system” of individual judges handling ethical issues has not worked, Whitehouse added.
Although Supreme Court justices follow some of the same rules imposed on lower court judges, such as the requirement to file annual financial reports, they are not subject to the code of conduct that applies to other judges.
The recent scrutiny was motivated by a April article by ProPublica that said Justice Clarence Thomas had taken trips funded by Republican billionaire Harlan Crow without disclosing them. ProPublica then reported in June that Justice Samuel Alito also did not report a trip to Alaska in 2008.
Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote on issuing subpoenas to Crow and conservative legal activist Leonard Leo, but the vote was abruptly postponed.
In recent months, several judges They have expressed their support for the court adopting its own code. Alito questioned whether Congress would have the legal authority to impose one on a separate branch of government.
Republicans have complained that ethics complaints have disproportionately focused on conservative judges. They have said Democrats want to delegitimize the Supreme Court because it has a 6-3 conservative majority that has issued several rulings that have angered liberals, including overturning the abortion rights landmark Roe v. Wade last year.
Where the new code differs from the rules followed by lower court judges is on issues specific to the Supreme Court.
The explanation of the rules notes, for example, that the approach to recusal in certain cases is specifically tailored to the Supreme Court. This is because the court has only nine judges and cases cannot be reassigned to anyone else if multiple judges are required to step aside.
As a result, while judges must follow normal rules for deciding whether to recuse themselves because of a conflict of interest, they also have what the court calls a “duty to sit down” if possible.
The statement says court employees will help judges comply with the new rules, including by developing a list of best practices.