SCOTUS justices hold power, but rarely ethics

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) justices are nine of the most powerful people in America. They hold the power of judicial review and consider appeals against the verdicts of the highest courts. SCOTUS justices also settle disputes between government authorities and state governments. They hear matters referred to by the president in their advisory role. 

However, while they are some of the most influential people in the country, justices are some of the least ethical people in government. 

ProPublica broke a story on April 6 that Justice Clarence Thomas accepted lavish vacations from Harlan Crow — a billionaire Republican donor — for more than two decades without disclosing them.

Crow has been a trustee of the Supreme Court Historical Society — a charity that preserves the court’s history — since 2006. Crow contributes $5,000 or more to the organization annually. He also gave $500,000 to the George W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation, a group that ran advertisements to build public support for Bush’s Supreme Court picks. 

Needless to say, Crow is a rich and powerful man with a lot of influence. 

Thomas accepted cruises on Crow’s yacht, rides on his private jet, spent time with the billionaire’s powerful friends at his private resort and accepted expensive gifts — all were non-disclosed gifts. 

After the ProPublica story was published, Thomas released a statement and said he was following the advice of fellow justices when he chose not to disclose the gifts. 

“Early in my tenure at the court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the court, was not reportable,” Thomas said. 

Other justices on the court advised Thomas not to disclose the lavish gifts he accepted. 

The Ethics in Government Act of 1978 — which applies to all government employees — requires disclosure of real estate transactions and most gifts. Each branch of government was given leeway in determining how it would comply with the law and what must be disclosed. The Supreme Court’s compliance was the weakest of any federal government body

The gifts justices have disclosed throughout the years are nothing small.

Justice Thomas accepted a $19,000 Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglas. Justice Antonin Scalia took at least 258 subsidized trips as a member of SCOTUS, all paid for by private donors — some of which were only partially disclosed. Justice Stephen Breyer took at least 225 subsidized trips from 2004 to 2018, according to data the Center for Responsive Politics compiled. This included trips to Europe, Japan, India and Hawaii. Additionally, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg received a private tour of Israel in 2018, paid for by an Israeli billionaire, Morris Kahn, who has had business before the court. Ginsburg was in Israel for an award ceremony, and shortly afterward, she received transportation, food and lodging as a guest of Kahn.

Other justices have taken questionable trips, including weeklong trips paid for by big universities and law schools, some of which were not fully disclosed on their annual reports. 

There need to be clear and firm ethical laws put in place for SCOTUS justices to follow. The court’s reputation has already been affected by suspected political partisans within the court — the passing of laws that intentionally support a specific political party. The acceptance of these gifts further damages the prestige of SCOTUS and its reputation as a fair arbiter of the law.

An option for the court is to adopt the Gifts Rule that applies to members of Congress and other federal employees. Senators and House Representatives cannot accept gifts — including hospitality — worth more than $100 from a single source in a year. Senators also need advanced permission from an ethics committee before accepting donations from personal friends worth more than $250. Additionally, free lodging can only be in someone’s residence if the owner is not a lobbyist. 

These regulations should be applied to SCOTUS justices. 

SCOTUS could also align its ethical rules with those the lower-court federal judges must follow. This includes gift limits and disclosure rules according to the Judicial Conference Regulations on Gifts. These conference rules have never applied to SCOTUS justices; however, they should.

The best solution is a bill introduced by Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Courts Subcommittee. The bill would require the court to adopt a code of conduct with disclosure rules as rigorous as those imposed on members of Congress. Justices would have to establish clear rules about recusing themselves — choosing not to act in a case due to a conflict of interest — and issue written statements about such recusals. Justices often recuse themselves without explaining why or completely abstain even with a conflict of interest.

SCOTUS needs to establish stricter rules for justices to follow. These powerful individuals have some of the most questionable ethics; if harsher limits on the gifts they accept are not established, the public may lose trust in the justices' ability to do their job properly.  

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