By MARK SHERMAN (Associated Press)
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court is adopting its first code of ethics, facing sustained criticism over undisclosed travel and gifts from wealthy benefactors to some justices.
The policy was issued by the court on Monday. The justices, who have hinted at internal deliberations on a code of ethics, met for the final time Thursday in their private courtroom conference room.
The issue has vexed the court for several months, due to a series of articles questioning the judges’ ethical practices. Many of those stories focused on Justice Clarence Thomas and his failure to disclose travel and other financial ties to wealthy conservative donors, including Harlan Crow and the Koch brothers. But Justices Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor have also come under scrutiny.
Three justices, Amy Coney Barrett, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh, have expressed support for an ethics code in recent months. In May, Chief Justice John Roberts said the court could do more to “adhere to the highest ethical standards,” without elaborating.
Public confidence and approval in the court are near historic lows, according to a Gallup poll released just before the court’s new term began on October 2.
As recently as last week, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the justices could quell some of the criticism and the Democratic push to impose a code of ethics on the court by implementing their own code. policy.
Durbin’s panel has been planning to subpoena Crow and conservative activist Leonard Leo about their role in arranging and paying for the judges’ luxury trips.
The committee has been investigating the court’s ethics and approved a code of ethics, although all 10 Republicans on the panel voted against it.
Republicans complained that Democrats were mainly reacting to decisions they didn’t like from the conservative-dominated court, including overturning the national right to abortion.
The proposal would require judges to provide more information about potential conflicts of interest. It would allow impartial panels of judges to review justices’ decisions not to recuse themselves from cases and require public, written explanations of their decisions not to recuse themselves. It would also seek to improve transparency around gifts received by judges and establish a process to investigate and enforce violations around required disclosures. The Democratic bill had little prospect of becoming law in the Republican-controlled House, let alone the closely divided Senate.
The push for a code of ethics was fueled by a series of articles from the investigative news site ProPublica that detailed the relationship between Crow and Thomas. For more than two decades, Crow has paid for nearly annual vacations, bought from Thomas and others the Georgia house where the judge’s mother still lives, and helped pay for a relative’s private education.
ProPublica also reported on Alito’s fishing trip to Alaska with a Republican donor, a trip Leo helped organize. The Associated Press reported that Sotomayor, with the help of his staff, has boosted sales of his books through college visits over the past decade.
The court’s initial action on ethics in the spring did not appease critics. Roberts declined an invitation from Durbin to testify before the judicial panel, but the chief justice provided a “Statement on Ethical Principles and Practices” signed by all nine justices that outlined the ethical rules they follow regarding travel, gifts and outside income. .
The statement provided by Roberts said the nine justices “reaffirm and reaffirm the fundamental ethical principles and practices to which they subscribe in the discharge of their responsibilities as members of the Supreme Court of the United States.”
The statement promised at least some small additional disclosure when one or more of them opt out of a case. But judges have been inconsistent in doing so since then.
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