Does the Supreme Court think that ethics is only for the “little people”?

The late Leona Helmsley, a controversial real estate developer, is reported to have said that “only the little people pay taxes.”  One might ask if the US Supreme Court has a similar view of ethics.

Reports in ProPublica this year detailed a pattern of behavior by Supreme Court justices that legal ethics experts said was far outside the norms of conduct for other federal judges. “ProPublica disclosed that Justice Clarence Thomas has accepted undisclosed luxury travel from Dallas billionaire Harlan Crow and a coterie of other ultrawealthy men for decades. Crow purchased Thomas’ mother’s home and paid private school tuition for a relative Thomas was raising as his son. Thomas also spoke at donor events for the Koch network, the powerful conservative activist group. Separately, ProPublica revealed that Justice Samuel Alito accepted a private jet trip to Alaska from a hedge fund billionaire and did not recuse himself when that billionaire later had a case before the court…Reporting from other outlets, including The Washington Post and The Associated Press, has added to the picture. The New York Times revealed that Thomas received a loan from a wealthy friend to purchase an expensive RV. A Senate investigation later found Thomas did not repay the loan in full.”

These and other disclosures led to considerable pressure to strengthen the Code of Conduct applicable to the members of the Court. Earlier this month the Court issued a code which sought to bridge what might be considered the ethics gap.

But did it do that?              

As further noted in ProPublica: “The code does not specify who, if anyone, could determine whether the rules had been violated. The new Supreme Court code’s lack of any apparent enforcement process is ‘the elephant in the room,’ said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas who studies the court.” “Even the most stringent and aggressive ethics rules don’t mean all that much if there’s no mechanism for enforcing them.”

This is different from the enforcement system applied to lower court judges “who are subject to oversight by panels of other judges, who review allegations of misconduct.”

Basic legal and ethics standards tend as a general matter – to support the notion that powerful individuals and organizations should be the subject of more oversight than “the little people” – not less.  

The approach taken by the Supreme Court weakens such standards and promotes wrongdoing– not only conflicts related but also a host of other sorts of misconduct. In my view it is very important that such standards be enhanced to be worthy of the “big people” to whom they apply.

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