Federal judges must adhere to a detailed ethics code of conduct, with one exception — the U.S. Supreme Court has no ethics code.
In fact, all lawyers who appear before federal courts are bound by the detailed Code of Professional Responsibility. The Code sets forth rules of ethical conduct to which they must adhere. The consequences of serious breaches can be suspension of licenses or disbarment (such as the disgraced Rudy Giuliani).  All licensed lawyers are “officers of the court” and must act like it.
These ethical obligations are designed to assure the integrity of our legal system. In individual cases across the country, there are, of course, violations of ethical duties which require enforcement, but nowhere in our judicial system is there a glaring absence of rules of ethical conduct–except at the highest court in the land.
How in the world could this happen? Lawyers have studied some of the world’s greatest legal opinions written by Supreme Court justices–from brilliant minds such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Felix Frankfurter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example. Many who have studied law revere such legal minds and haven’t previously seen an obvious need for ethical scrutiny of those hallowed halls. Recent years have changed all that.
Chief Justice Roberts has been strongly pressed, on multiple occasions, to create a code of ethical conduct for the Supreme Court.
This past February, 25 of our most prominent legal ethics scholars sent a letter to Chief Justice Roberts asking for him to finally deliver on an ethics code governing the Supreme Court.
A month later, a Congressional letter was sent to the Chef Justice and Clarence Thomas, calling on Roberts to create binding, enforced ethics rules governing the Court. The letter was authored by two Senators (Alex Padilla and Elizabeth Warren) and one House Representative (Pramila Jaypal) and joined by 21 of their colleagues.
Roberts has dragged his feet on such a sensitive issue as unethical behavior in our highest court, to his personal disgrace.
Small wonder that recent polls show the public’s historically low confidence in the Supreme Court-a 25% approval rating.
There are some limitations on the ethical conduct of justices–some anti-corruption and disqualification constraints upon sitting justices exist. Yet the broad reach of ethical obligations required of all other federal judges does not reach the vaulted heights of the Supreme Court.
The Ethics in Government Act of 1978 requires financial disclosures from all public officials, including Supreme Court justices.
Federal law (28 USC 455) provides for mandatory disqualification of justices under specific circumstances, which closely parallels the Code of Conduct for United States Judges that applies to all federal judges other than Supreme Court justices.
Lawyers and laypeople alike would find difficulty understanding why a Code of Conduct for federal judges doesn’t apply to Supreme Court justices who are at the top of the federal judicial system.
The logical answer is that the federal ethics code should apply to all judges/justices in the federal system. The argument that will be raised is that legislative intrusion into Supreme Court conduct violates the Court’s Constitutional independence. There is, however, precedent for Congressional efforts to address corruption within all three branches of government. The Ethics in Government Act of 1978, noted above, applicable to all branches of government, was passed in response to the Watergate scandal and resignation of Richard Nixon in disgrace. Similarly, a federal law, also noted above, enacts the Code of Conduct provisions for mandatory disqualification of Supreme Court justices from pending cases.
All federal judges, other than Supreme Court justices, are required to comply with a self-regulated, detailed set of rules of conduct. An ethics code was adopted by the Judicial Conference in 1973 to govern the conduct of federal judges. The Code includes enforcement provisions for violations of ethical violations. The code, revised and enhanced multiple times from 1992 to 2014, is now called the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.
Despite the detail of the self-regulated code, serious questions have been raised concerning federal judicial ethics. The Code is not dutifully enforced.
Late last year, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal revealed that, between 2010 and 2018, 131 federal judges ruled in cases involving companies in which the judges or their families owned stock. This is a clear and irrefutable conflict of interest, the likes of which happen routinely in banana republics. The failure to enforce the provisions of the Code and discipline such judges is a stain on judicial integrity. Such failure must be addressed meaningfully.
Blatant, unethical conduct by Supreme Court justices has also been exposed, led by poster boy Clarence Thomas.
What precipitated the outrage of Senators and Representatives resulting in the Congressional letter referred to above was the conduct of Clarence Thomas. The Congressional letter demands that Thomas provide a written explanation about his failure to recuse himself from litigation concerning overturning the 2020 election, given the “potential” conflicts of interest involved.
The conflicts here are not potential but are irrefutable. A conflict of interest inherently involves bias or the reasonable prospect of bias.Thomas’ wife creates an inescapable conflict which Thomas ignores  All judges and Justices are accountable for the conduct of their spouses and other family members, requiring disqualification from cases in which family members’ interests are involved.
Initially, Thomas and his spouse declared that they never spoke about the her political affairs. What cockamamie nonsense. Clarence, not even your mother would buy that one. 
Now, the ‘my wife and I don’t talk about politics” defense is no longer available. The public is well aware of Ginni Thomas’ duplicity in the fraudulent effort to overturn the 2020 Presidential election. And so are you, Clarence.
According to both the Washington Post and CBS News, between election day 2020 and the days after the attack upon the Capital, Ginni Thomas and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows shared 29 text messages in which the Justice’s wife  spread false theories about the election and urged Meadows to overturn the election. Mrs. Thomas is one of 9 board members of a group that helped lead the “Stop the Steal”  movement. Sounding very much like a fanatical insurrectionist, Ginni Thomas called for punishment of House Republicans who participated in the J 6 Committee.
For most of this year, Ginni has been a gushing fountain of facts on major cable news networks, confirming the breadth of conflicts of interest that require her husband to disqualify himself from all litigation concerning the 2020 election. Federal law includes the spouse of a justice. It mandates that a sitting Justice shall disqualify himself because he knows that his fruitcake wife has “an interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding.” Justice Thomas’ failure to disqualify himself in these matters is a violation of federal law. In fact, Thomas was the only dissenting justice who voted against the January 6th Committee’s access to presidential records involving the Trump Administration’s efforts to stop the transfer of power to Joe Biden.
Thomas also violated the federal financial disclosure law, the Ethics in Government Act. The Congressional letter recites Thomas’ failure to disclose the $686,589 his wife received from the Heritage Foundation over 5 years, from 2003-2007.
Breaches of ethical requirements applicable to Supreme Court justices are not limited to Thomas. Multiple justices have shamelessly failed to recuse themselves from cases before the Court while they of their spouses and other family members own stock  in parties to the cases.
You don’t have to be a lawyer to understand the obvious conflict of interest. The federal law is clear. A justice shall disqualify himself where he has a “financial interest in the subject matter in controversy or in a party to the proceeding.”
This federal law also applies broadly to “any other interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding.” In 2004 for example, Justice Scalia went on a hunting trip, schmoozing with then Vice President Cheney while the Supreme Court was considering a case in which Cheney was a defendant.
These are just the cases in which the Supreme Court justices have violated federally mandated ethics laws. Subjecting the justices to the same ethics code applicable to other federal judges would produce many more ethics violations. As Congresspeople, including members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committee have asserted, justices regularly accept luxurious trips, donations to their favorite causes and expensive memberships which are not allowed under ethics rules that apply to other branches of government.
Avoiding conduct that creates the “appearance of impropriety” is required of all non-Supreme Court federal judges and all lawyers. Lying under oath is more than that. Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gosuch all testified, under oath, to the importance of precedent concerning Roe v. Wade, leaving the strong impression that these Supreme Court nominees would adhere to this nearly 50 year old precedent. Once these justices got to their life-long positions of power, they created the majority vote to overturn the abortion rights of American women.
Their conduct has created the public’s reasonable belief that they purposely lied under oath to eliminate abortion rights in our country. The result has inflamed the profound lack of confidence in and respect for the Supreme Court. The sleazy, unethical behavior of justices, who are unaccountable for their conduct, stands alone in our three branches of federal governance.
The Founding Fathers intended that the Supreme Court would be the guardian of our Constitutional democracy. Under the present circumstances, who will guard the guardians?
That burden, one would expect, would be shouldered by Chief Justice Roberts.
Despite Roberts’ public statements affirming the importance of enforcing ethical principles in the Supreme Court over which he presides, his failure to act in the face of undeniable ethics breaches by Clarence Thomas and others is tantamount to thumbing his nose at the public and the other branches of government.
Congressional leaders are insisting that Roberts preside over an investigation into violations of federal ethics laws and take responsibility for creating and enforcing an ethics code for the Supreme Court. In a joint letter to Roberts from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative Hank Johnson, chairs of the subcommittees overseeing the federal judiciary,  Roberts is informed that if the Supreme Court is unwilling to police itself, Congress will step in.
Exasperation with shameful conduct in our highest court has produced a Congressional ultimatum; an ultimatum that can and should  be addressed promptly. We already have a very detailed code of ethics that applies to all other federal judges. With some modifications, that code can be applied to the Supreme Court.
What remains to be done, however, is the creation of an enforcement procedure that is effective. We don’t yet have one for federal judges. Too much has not been dutifully enforced. Several Congressional proposals have been made for implementing an Inspector General to oversee judicial ethics compliance and disciplinary actions. We have such a system in place for federal agencies.
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  1. How ironic that those who cast the most dispersions on others are equally guilty of conflict of interest statements. There is most like not a person in the HR or the Senate who has not violated most rules in one form or another. It is impossible for anyone to be perfect. Before you cast stones and demand corrective action–take a look in the mirror. I’m not saying excuse all…but I am saying it is extremely difficult to expect a US Supreme Justice to be 150% above and beyond reproach given today’s animosity, division and derisiveness. It’s mostly the Democrats condemning Republicans because of differences in believes and opinions. Democrats need to clean up their own act first!

    • Oh, drop the act, “Ruth.” The fact remains that EVERY SINGLE MEMBER of both the House and the Senate is sujbect to investigations when they violate a single rule.

      And EVERY SINGLE FEDERAL JUDGE–except for the members of the Highest Court–are subject to investigations when they violate any rule.

      But just keep on playing that typical Republican “but everybody does it” bullshit as if that somehow lessens the issue of the Supreme Court’s failure to clean up their act and enact a strict Code of Ethics that covers themselves the same way that every other judge (and EVERY SINGLE ATTORNEY who stands before SCOTUS and argues a case).

  2. Congressional leaders are insisting that Roberts preside over an investigation into violations of federal ethics laws and take responsibility for creating and enforcing an ethics code for the Supreme Court. In a joint letter to Roberts from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Representative Hank Johnson, chairs of the subcommittees overseeing the federal judiciary, Roberts is informed that if the Supreme Court is unwilling to police itself, Congress will step in.


  3. Judges on the highest court in the land should be held to an even higher standard than anyone else because they are the last stop on the justice train. Thomas has clearly violated the most basic of ethical standards and is devoid of decency.
    Ruthie, dear, the,Rs like you have whined for decades when more liberal.justices have expanded the rights of minorities, and women. Today’s GOP is working hard to weaken those hard-won rights because, like you, it fears diversity. Thomas clearly needs to recuse himself from.any cases,involving Trump.
    And you can stuff your lies,where the sun don’t shine.


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