Something is rotten at One First Street — as if you couldn’t tell by all the ethics scandals. Whether it’s the half a million in unreported vacations from donors or the real estate transactions with those same megadonors or conveniently neglecting to mention their business with Biglaw partners with business before the Court, it’s been a season of scandal. And confidence in the institution was at an historic low *before* these ethics dilemmas came to light.
And the Chief Justice’s dismissive attitude about the ethics problems that have come to define his Court is not encouraging. Nor is it new. Every other branch of government — and the lower courts — have actual, enforceable codes of ethics but John Roberts continues to operate under the assumption that these ethics scandals aren’t a problem and if he just ignores the issue, it’ll go away. Of course, there’s the little matter of the power of the purse but it’s unclear how much Congress will push that.
But Congress would really, really, really like there to be an enforceable code of ethics and not the mealy-mouthed BS the Chief keeps on pushing. Now Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have united in a bipartisan effort to get that done. As reported by The Hill:
The bill would require the Supreme Court to implement a code of conduct within one year of its enactment into law and publish the new code on its website so it’s available to the public.
It would further require the court to name an individual to handle any complaints of violations of the code and give the court authority to initiate investigations to determine if justices or staff have engaged in conduct affecting the administration of justice or violating federal laws or codes of conduct.
It would empower the court to draft its own code of conduct to preserve the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches, thereby deflecting any criticism that members of Congress would be interfering in the court’s affairs.
Murkowski noted the effort is designed to reinvigorate confidence in the Court, “The American public’s confidence in the Supreme Court is at an all-time-low. Americans have made clear their concerns with the transparency—or lack thereof—coming from the Supreme Court and its justices.”
“It is critical the public has full faith that their institutions are functioning, including the judicial branch. The Supreme Court must demonstrate independence and fairness as they rule on the laws of the land—and any cracks in the public’s confidence will have damaging repercussions for the state of our democracy,” she warned.
It’s a theme that King also pushed in statements about the proposal:
“In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton notes that the Judiciary can only be successful if it has ‘the esteem and applause of all the virtuous and disinterested.’ With trust in the Supreme Court reaching historic lows, I worry we’re getting dangerously far from this fundamental vision,” King said Wednesday.
It’s unclear whether there’s enough motivation in Congress to get this done, but it’s increasingly obvious *something* needs to be done if we want a functional system of government.
Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, host of The Jabot podcast, and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter @Kathryn1 or Mastodon @Kathryn1@mastodon.social.