The nonbinding code of conduct, undersigned by all nine justices, “represents a codification of principles that we have long regarded as governing our conduct,” according to the Court.
The code outlines five canons that justices should abide by. According to the document released, justices should (1) “uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary,” (2) “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities,” (3) “perform the duties of office fairly, impartially and diligently,” they (4) “may engage in extrajudicial activities that are consistent with the obligations of the judicial office” and (5) should “refrain from political activity.”
Given the milieu of the Court, the multiple sections guiding financial and fiduciary activities are of particular note. Since the start of the year, public polling has shown falling approval of the Supreme Court amidst repeated controversies surrounding transparency and ethics, including multiple ProPublica reports detailing undisclosed gifts from Republican billionaire Harlan Crow to Thomas and his family, which have spurred calls for change and reform at the nation’s highest court.
However, immediately apparent is the lack of an enforcement mechanism in this new code of conduct. As Take Back the Court’s President Sarah Lipton-Lubet pointed out in a statement, there are “53 uses of the word ‘should’ and only 6 of the word ‘must,’” and emphasized that “the Court cannot police itself.”
Professor Leah Litman, who teaches constitutional law and federal courts at the University of Michigan, criticized the financial guidelines, which allow justices to fundraise for law-related nonprofits, calling it “a hall pass for the Federalist Society galas and Koch Network 501c3 and 501c4 [organizations] ”
At the beginning of the month, 66 organizations led by the Alliance for Justice called for Thomas to resign from the Court immediately, citing the justice’s “egregious” conduct that “undermines the ordinary citizen’s faith in the rule of law, further destabilizing our democracy.”
It remains to be seen if an enforcement mechanism will be rolled out.