There's a Glaring Ethical Problem at the Supreme Court

In some favorable Supreme Court–related news for a change, the institutional body may soon be held to a base level of transparency and accountability. That’s the aim of a constitutional administrative petition recently filed against the Court.

The petition, issued by Harry M. Snyder, a member of the State Bar of California, points out that "though they rule on the nation’s most influential cases, the justices of the Supreme Court are uniquely exempted from the basic set of ethical rules — the Code of Conduct for United States Judges — that governs all other federal judges."

The petition calls for the implementation of three basic measures:

  • The adoption of the Code of Conduct for United States judges
  • The creation of a committee to review and act on complaints to conflicts of interest
  • A requirement that recusals and refusals to recuse be disclosed publicly

Far from being a set of revolutionary reforms, these points reflect pre-existing ethical standards to which all other judges on the federal level are held. In calling for their implementation, the petition addresses the “structural lack of accountability” that has come to light in recent years.

Arriving at a time of upheaval for the court, the petition’s timing could not be more appropriate, especially given the many issues of accountability demonstrated by the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.

Two prominent examples in particular show the bias endemic to many of the court’s judicial decisions. In terms of conflicts of interest, the petition cites the prominent case of Justice Scalia’s refusal to recuse himself in a case brought against former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Despite the pair’s longstanding friendship, the court agreed to hear the case and as we know all too well, to this day Cheney remains free of criminal charges. In another example, Justice Breyer is invoked for his failure to recuse himself in the case of United States v. Booker, which sought to challenge sentencing guidelines Breyer himself helped create years earlier.

As the petition notes: “Is it any wonder that public approval of the Supreme Court is at a historic low of 43%?”

There’s also the more recent controversy surrounding Scalia’s “all-expenses paid” trips to the ranch of a former party in one of his cases.

Basically, given the ever-tipping scales that mark the U.S. justice system, the petition represents a much-needed weight cast on the side of sanity.

The petition is available to read in full:

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