A nonpartisan watchdog group is calling for a code of ethics for Supreme Court justices amid concerns about conflicts of interest.
Surprisingly, Supreme Court justices have no official code of conduct with clear ethical obligations, unlike other judges in America. And their ethical choices can’t be countermanded by a higher court because there is none.
Creating a code of conduct was one of a number of recommendations in a report issued Thursday by the Project on Government Oversight to “enhance the legitimacy” of the nation’s highest court amid vicious political infighting over the confirmation of judges.
“No ethics? No problem! We’re the Supremes!” quipped Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics and now a senior fellow with POGO.
“The Supreme Court is one of the most powerful and least accountable bodies in government, and it has no code of ethics. That needs to change,” Shaub said in a statement, calling the situation a “disgrace.” The “time has come for the Supreme Court to adopt a code of ethics or for Congress to impose one on it,” he added.
The report, issued by panel of former judges and legal scholars convened last year by POGO, also called for reforming the court’s “approach to ethics and recusal,” as well as the “accessibility and transparency” of its famously opaque decision-making.
The panel also recommended increasing the number of seats on the court, imposing term limits, and having smaller panels of justices hear cases as opposed to all nine presiding over each one to break up static voting blocks. All of the former judges on POGO’s panel were appointed by Republican governors or presidents.
Interest in a code of conduct has surged recently, especially in some eyebrow-raising situations with new conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
Barrett this year refused to recuse herself from a case involving the right-wing dark-money group Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which spent at least $1 million to push her own confirmation in the Senate last year.
The foundation’s case before the Supreme Court challenged a California law demanding that major donors to charities be identified to the state. Barrett vigorously participated in the proceedings, didn’t reveal her connection to the organization, and voted with the majority handing the foundation a win to keep its donors secret.
Nor did Barrett recuse herself from a case against the Royal Dutch Shell oil company, her father’s employer for 29 years. The city of Baltimore sued Shell, BP and several other oil companies demanding damages for the effects of climate change. Justice Samuel Alito, who owns stock in several oil and gas companies, did recuse himself from the case. The court’s decision in the case was seen as favorable to Shell and the other oil companies.
In April Barrett nabbed a $2 million advance for a book about the court, reportedly with a conservative imprint of Penquin Random House. Will she recuse herself from any future case involving Penguin Random House — or a competitor of the company that’s paying her $2 million? It will be up to her.
Other justices who have written books while serving on the court face similar dilemmas.
In a notorious case from 2003, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia went hunting and dined with with his longtime buddy Vice President Dick Cheney while Cheney had a case before the Supreme Court, a situation that would not have been tolerated for a lower court judge.
“I do not believe my impartiality can reasonably be questioned,” Scalia decided for himself in a memorandum about his apparent conflict of interest. Scalia chummed around with Cheney three weeks after the court decided to hear a case over whether the White House had to turn over documents relating to the energy task force Cheney headed in 2001. The justices effectively ruled in Cheney’s favor at the time and the case was ultimately thrown out.
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