The Supreme Court unveiled a new, incredibly vague “code of ethics” on Monday, following several high profile ethics scandals.
All nine justices signed the 14-page document, which includes five canons of conduct under which the justices should recuse themselves and is based on similar codes used by lower courts.
It requires justices to “uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary” and “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities,” according to the code. The code does not mention any enforcement mechanisms, however, and disclosures are completely voluntary.
In a statement attached to the code, the justices highlighted that the court has “long had the equivalent of common law ethics rules,” which they believe added to confusion around the court’s behavior.
“The absence of a Code, however, 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,” the justices said in a statement. “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.”
Yet the new set of rules fails to outline possible consequences should ethics violations persist.
“This is a long-overdue step by the justices, but a code of ethics is not binding unless there is a mechanism to investigate possible violations and enforce the rules,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, noting that the court’s “honor system” holding justices accountable hasn’t worked in the past.
The court has faced increased scrutiny since several ProPublica investigations revealed that Justice Clarence Thomas had been pocketing favors from Republican real estate developer Harlan Crow, including private school tuition for his nephew, the renovation of the home where his mother still lives, and undisclosed trips on the billionaire’s yacht, private jet, and at his private resort. Two months later, the outlet unveiled a similar scandal with Justice Samuel Alito, who failed to report a luxury fishing vacation to Alaska with hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer in 2008.