Federal judge takes rare step of backing U.S. Supreme Court ethics code

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Senior U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton appears in a 2015 video produced by the federal judiciary. Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts/Handout via Reuters

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  • U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton called lack of Supreme Court ethics code "unimaginable"
  • Congressional Democrats are pushing Supreme Court ethics legislation

(Reuters) - A prominent Republican-appointed federal judge on Thursday took the rare step of arguing that U.S. Supreme Court justices should be subject to an ethics code, saying the judiciary has done an inadequate job of policing itself against misconduct.

Senior U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton told attendees of a conference in Chicago focused on threats to the independence of the courts that it was "unimaginable that we have a segment of our federal judiciary that's not subject to an ethics code."

The Washington, D.C.-based judge said that while he was concerned Congressional legislation to reform the judiciary could impinge upon its independence, "we are in part responsible for what has happened."

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"We've had some judges who've been engaged in atrocious behavior, sexual assault, sexual intimidation and other misconduct," he said. "And many times we haven't been proactive in punishing them and sanctioning them for what they've done."

Walton, an appointee of former Republican President George W. Bush, acknowledged his comments might be considered "heresy." But Walton said he saw no reason to not subject Supreme Court justices to a code of conduct like their lower-court colleagues.

"If the perception of the American public is that we have a segment of our judiciary that's not policing itself adequately because it has no rules that dictate how they are to conduct themselves, I think it does create a real problem," he said.

The Supreme Court did not respond to requests for comment.

His comments at the conference hosted by the National Judicial College featuring other judges came two weeks after the U.S. House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee advanced a bill to require the Supreme Court to adopt an ethics code.

Democrats backed the bill while calling 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.

Walton, who is Black, said he has faced threats and "racial attacks" due to overseeing some of the prosecutions of former Republican President Donald Trump's supporters from the riot, evidence the courts are "under attack."

Walton also said he was "troubled" by protests outside the homes of Supreme Court justices following the leak of a draft Supreme Court decision indicating they are poised to overturn the constitutional right to abortion.

"I don't think our families should be put at risk because of the things that we do," Walton said.

Read more:

U.S. House panel advances Supreme Court ethics bill

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.