ABA presses U.S. Supreme Court to adopt ethics rules

Scenes of capitol hill in Washington, U.S.
REUTERS/Leah Millis
  • The move comes as public confidence in the court is declining
  • Supreme Court justices are not subject to the code of conduct for all other federal judges

(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court should adopt a code of judicial ethics, the American Bar Association said Monday.

The ABA’s policy-making body passed a resolution urging the court to put in place a binding ethics code similar to the Judicial Conference of the United States’ Code of Conduct. That code lays out rules for the rest of the country's federal judges regarding extrajudicial activities, financial matters and other conduct.

“The absence of a clearly articulated, binding code of ethics for the justices of the Court imperils the legitimacy of the Court,” according to a report submitted by the Seattle-area King County Bar Association on the ABA proposal.

A Supreme Court spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

The ABA, which is the nation’s largest voluntary bar association, passed the resolution at a time when public confidence in the Supreme Court is declining. A Reuters poll found that 57% of Americans had an unfavorable view of the court last June, following its decision overturning the right to abortion and a leak of a draft version of that opinion.

Democrats last year introduced a bill calling for the Supreme Court to issue a code of conduct for its nine justices that would require the judges and their law clerks to disclose all gifts, reimbursements and income they receive as well as bolster recusal standards. The bill has not been enacted.

The activities of the justices’ spouses have also come under increased scrutiny in recent years. Democrats have called for conservative Justice Clarence Thomas to recuse himself from cases involving the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol attack after text messages showed his wife Ginni Thomas encouraged attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

The ABA resolution does not propose a specific Supreme Court code of ethics or explain how such rules would be enforced, saying such issues are best left up to the court. But the code of ethics should have teeth, it said.

“Public confidence requires that the public believe judges act ethically according to standards firmly grounded in judicial independence, integrity, and impartiality,” the accompanying report said.

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com