The US Supreme Court unveiled its inaugural code of conduct on Monday, marking the first time the highest legal authority in the nation has established its own ethical guidelines for its nine justices.

The release of this nine-page “code of conduct” follows heightened scrutiny of the Supreme Court due to recent media reports detailing gifts and holiday arrangements bestowed upon several justices.

While federal judges in lower courts have adhered to an ethical code since 1973, this development represents a significant step as the Supreme Court outlines its own set of rules.

Despite having issued a “statement on ethics principles and practices” earlier in the year, the latest release provides more comprehensive and detailed guidance.

In an introductory paragraph, the justices acknowledged their historical adherence to unwritten ethical standards derived from various sources, including the ethical code for lower courts.

They conceded that the absence of explicit rules had led to a “misunderstanding” that the justices considered themselves unrestricted by ethical guidelines.

The newly unveiled code, spanning four main sections, outlines expectations for justices’ behavior, performance of duties, and conduct in non-judicial and financial activities.

Notably, it lacks an enforcement mechanism, relying on justices to voluntarily comply with its “rules and principles.”

Legal expert Steve Vladeck of the University of Texas School of Law commented that the code, while a step forward, falls short without a mechanism to ensure adherence. He emphasized the importance of enforcement for any ethical rules to be meaningful.

The code advises justices to consider the potential appearance of impropriety when speaking at outside events and specifies circumstances requiring recusal from a case, such as biases, prejudices, or financial interests that could substantially impact the case outcome.

The release of the code comes in response to recent critiques and heightened public concern about the ethical conduct of Supreme Court justices.

Media reports, including an investigative piece on Justice Clarence Thomas’s relationship with a conservative activist, prompted calls for Congress to legislate a binding set of ethical guidelines for the court.

While critics argue that the code lacks teeth, the court stated that it would explore further guidance on expanding or amending rules related to financial disclosure and recusal. Public trust in the Supreme Court, particularly following controversial decisions, has been reported to be at near all-time lows in recent opinion surveys.

Last Updated: 14 November 2023