The United States Supreme Court recently issued an ethics code that is to guide the conduct of its justices. There have been calls for the Court to issue such a set of ethics rules for some time, but recent revelations about the questionable ethical conduct of some of the justices apparently forced the Court to act. Some of these problems included the fact that Justice Thomas’ wife worked to overturn the 2020 election just prior to the January 6 Capitol riot, and he continued to participate in cases relating to the riot and the election. He also failed to disclose luxury travel provided by a wealthy conservative donor, payment of private school tuition for a grandnephew he was raising, a real estate deal involving the purchase of his mother’s house, and a loan that allowed him to purchase an elaborate RV. Justices Alito and Gorsuch have also failed to disclose financial favors received from wealthy and powerful individuals with cases before the Court.
Clearly, the situation was so bad that the Court had to take some action to at least create the appearance that it could police itself. However, there are still serious questions concerning how the new ethics code will be put into effect or enforced. Exactly what activities would violate the ethics rules, and who would decide a violation actually occurred, also remain unclear. There are no specific restrictions on gifts, travel or real estate deals. In somewhat general terms, the new code cautions justices to avoid activities that detract from the dignity of their office, interfere with the performance of their official duties, reflect adversely on their impartiality, or lead to frequent disqualification. Justices are also prohibited from allowing personal, political, or financial relationships from influencing their official conduct or judgement. Justices are also barred from being a speaker, guest of honor, or being featured on the program, of certain fund raising events.
The new code also bars justices from speaking at events promoting commercial products or services, but includes an exception for events to sell books written by the justices themselves. Obviously, any book deal for a US Supreme Court justice could be worth millions of dollars. Also, any justice writing a book would have the resources of the Court to do so, including a team of law clerks to do the research and actual writing.