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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Supreme Court under pressure issues ethics guidelines specific to justices

Members of the Supreme Court sit for a group photo.    (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
By Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow Washington Post

The Supreme Court on Monday issued an ethics code specific to the nine justices after reports of lavish and unreported travel and gifts for some of its members prompted intense public criticism and political pressure.

A statement from the court said that while “for the most part” the guidelines are not new, they were necessary for the public.

The absence of an ethics code “has led in recent years to the misunderstanding that the Justices of this Court, unlike all other jurists in this country, regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules,” said the statement signed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and his eight colleagues. “To dispel this misunderstanding, we are issuing this Code, which largely represents a codification of principles that we have long regarded as governing our conduct.”

Although the justices say they voluntarily comply with the same ethical guidelines that apply to other federal judges, the lack of an ethics code specific to the Supreme Court has become a prominent complaint on Capitol Hill, where in 2019 Justice Elena Kagan told a congressional committee that Roberts was “seriously” studying the issue.

Even though the court’s legal counsel Ethan Torrey prepared a working document of issues for them to consider, the issue stagnated. Leaders of the American Bar Association said in a statement last year that “the absence of a clearly articulated, binding code of ethics for the justices of the Court imperils the legitimacy of the Court.”

The Supreme Court’s announcement follows months of criticism of the court following revelations that some of the justices accepted, but did not publicly report, expensive trips and gifts from wealthy benefactors.

The justices have been under immense pressure to strengthen their disclosure and recusal polices after news reports that Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. did not disclose free trips they accepted many years ago from wealthy conservative donors.

Last week, Senate Democrats turned up the pressure, opening debate on the authorization of subpoenas for more information about those trips from Texas billionaire Harlan Crow, a longtime friend of Thomas, and judicial activist Leonard Leo, who was instrumental in building the conservative supermajority on the court.

Reports from the investigative news site ProPublica detailed how Crow paid for luxury vacations and private jet travel for Thomas over many years. Crow also purchased several properties from Thomas and his relatives and paid the private school tuition for Thomas’s great-nephew.

Separately, Leo arranged for Alito to take a 2008 fishing trip to Alaska with a billionaire hedge fund manager.

The vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee was delayed because of strong opposition from Republican lawmakers who say the scrutiny of two conservative justices is a politically motivated in response to the court’s recent rulings, including the expansion of gun rights and elimination of the nationwide right to abortion.

Thomas and Alito have both said that under the rules in place at the time, they did not believe they needed to report private jet travel and free trips. In his annual financial disclosure this year, Thomas for the first time reported Crow’s purchase in 2014 of the family properties in Savannah, Ga., and reported three 2022 trips on Crow’s private jet.

But the more recent media reports have led Democratic lawmakers to support legislation that would require ethics rules for the justices as strict as those that apply to members of Congress.

Roberts last April turned down an invitation to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, raising separation of powers concerns. Instead, all nine justices signed a nonbinding “Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices.” The memo was criticized by Democrats as recycled and insufficient.

Since then, three justices - Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett - have all suggested in public remarks the high court should act on its own to adopt a binding policy.