The Supreme Court announced on Monday that it had issued an ethics code for the justices after a series of revelations about undisclosed property deals and gifts intensified pressure on the court to adopt one.
In a statement by the court, the justices said they had adopted the code of conduct “to set out succinctly and gather in one place the ethics rules and principles that guide the conduct of the members of the court.”
“For the most part these rules and principles are not new,” the court said, adding that “the absence of a code, however, 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.”
Left unclear was how the code will be enforced.
Although lower federal judges are bound by an ethics code that governs their conduct, the Supreme Court justices have never been required to abide by those same rules because of its special constitutional status. In a letter to lawmakers this spring, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the court “takes guidance” from the ethics code for other federal judges.
In the months since, a few justices, including Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett, publicly voiced support for the court to adopt an ethics policy. In wide-ranging remarks at Notre Dame Law School in September, before the court’s current term began, Justice Kagan said she believed an ethics code “would, I think, go far in persuading other people that we were adhering to the highest standards of conduct.”
In mid-October, Justice Barrett echoed that sentiment during an interview at the University of Minnesota, saying, “It would be a good idea for us to do it, particularly so that we can communicate to the public exactly what it is that we are doing in a clearer way.”
Debate over whether the court should be bound by an ethics code has persisted for years. During a 2019 budget hearing, Justice Kagan acknowledged that the court was considering such rules. She said the chief justice was “studying the question of whether to have a code of judicial conduct that’s applicable only to the United States Supreme Court.”
Calls for the court to adopt a code intensified after revelations that raised questions over potential conflicts of interest.
Justice Clarence Thomas, in particular, has faced scrutiny, in part over the political activities of his wife, Virginia Thomas, who worked to overturn the 2020 election results in the weeks leading up to the Capitol attack. Justice Thomas came under criticism when he failed to recuse himself from cases related to attacks on the election results.
In April, ProPublica documented the justice’s years of undisclosed luxury travel, including private jets and trips aboard a superyacht at the largess of a Texas real estate magnate and conservative donor, Harlan Crow.
Since then, several news organizations, including The New York Times, have revealed undisclosed gifts to the justice by powerful friends. Those include the purchase of Justice Thomas’s motor coach, the payment of private school tuition for a grandnephew whom the justice was raising and the justice’s mother’s home in an undisclosed real estate deal.
Justice Thomas has defended his decision not to report the travel and gifts.
Other justices, including Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch, have also faced allegations of failing to disclose their connections to wealthy people with close ties to the court. Justice Alito did not report a 2008 trip on the private jet of Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire who later had cases before the court. Justice Gorsuch did not disclose that the head of a major law firm had purchased a Colorado vacation property that he co-owned.