Bloomberg Law
April 26, 2023, 2:07 AM

Supreme Court Commits to Ethics, Stopping Short of Binding Code

Greg Stohr
Greg Stohr
Bloomberg News

The US Supreme Court responded to mounting ethics controversies with a three-page statement signed by all nine justices vowing to follow “foundational ethics principles and practices,” but suggesting they see no need for a formal code of conduct.

The statement, which was highly unusual, was attached to a letter Tuesday from Chief Justice John Roberts refusing a request to testify before a Senate committee. It isn’t likely to forestall the intensifying scrutiny of individual justices or end what appears to be a growing clash between different branches of government over the disclosure and recusal practices of the nation’s highest court.

John Roberts
Photographer: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg

Aimed in part to “dispel some common misconceptions,” the statement drew criticism from Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, who had asked Roberts to testify on ethics reform for the court.

Durbin said he was “surprised that the chief justice’s recounting of existing legal standards of ethics suggests current law is adequate and ignores the obvious.”

Gabe Roth, executive director of the watchdog group Fix the Court, said the statement was “nowhere near an appropriate response to the ethical failures of the current court.”

Durbin’s request for Roberts to testify came in response to a ProPublica report that Justice Clarence Thomas failed to disclose luxury trips over two decades that were paid for by Harlan Crow, a Texas real estate developer who has donated millions to conservative causes.

In a second story, ProPublica reported that Crow bought three Georgia properties, including Thomas’s boyhood home, from the justice and relatives.

The statement was largely a summary of existing practices and didn’t lay out any new initiatives. The document described what it said was the court’s approach toward financial disclosure, outside income and recusals.

“The undersigned justices today reaffirm and restate foundational ethics principles and practices to which they subscribe in carrying out their responsibilities as members of the Supreme Court of the United States,” the statement began.

The statement didn’t directly address the Thomas controversy. It mentioned gift limits and disclosure requirements only in passing, as well as an exemption for “personal hospitality.”

Earlier: Thomas’s Billionaire Friend Had Business Before Supreme Court

Clarence Thomas
Photographer: Erin Schaff/The New York Times/Bloomberg

The Supreme Court isn’t bound by the code of conduct that applies to the rest of the federal judiciary. The statement pointed to a 1991 resolution in which the justices agreed to abide by the regulations anyway.

“Since then justices have followed the financial disclosure requirements and limitations on gifts, outside earned income, outside employment, and honoraria,” the court said in its statement. “They file the same annual financial disclosure reports as other federal judges.”

The court defended the practice of letting individual justices make decisions about disqualifying themselves from cases. Thomas has drawn criticism for not recusing from cases involving the 2020 election, even though his wife was pressing Trump administration officials to try to overturn the results.

“If the full court or any subset of the court were to review the recusal decisions of individual justices, it would create an undesirable situation in which the court could affect the outcome of a case by selecting who among its members may participate,” the court said.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Greg Stohr in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Sara Forden at

Elizabeth Wasserman

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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