AFJ Condemns Decision by Chief Justice Roberts to Refuse to Adopt Code of Conduct
Press ContactKevin Fry firstname.lastname@example.org
Washington, D.C., February 22, 2011—Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron today issued the following statement in response to Chief Justice John Roberts’ letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy in which he refuses to have the Supreme Court formally adopt the Code of Conduct for United States Judges:
Yesterday, Chief Justice John Roberts told Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and the American people that the Supreme Court of the United States, apparently alone among all institutions of American government, doesn’t need formally binding ethics rules and has no intention of adopting any. In a terse statement the Chief Justice flatly rejected a recommendation by Chairman Leahy and Senators Durbin, Whitehouse, Franken, and Blumenthal that the Court voluntarily, explicitly, and formally adopt the same Code of Conduct that governs every other federal judge.
All federal judges are required to abide by a set of ethics rules spelled out in the Code, which includes many general guidelines, and also specific common-sense prohibitions on engaging in political activity and being active participants in fundraisers. These rules are designed to protect individual judges—and the judicial system as a whole—from even the appearance of partiality or impropriety so that the American people can have complete confidence that federal judges act without personal bias or political agenda. But there are nine federal jurists who are exempt. The Code does not formally apply to the Supreme Court of the United States, except, perhaps, as "guidance." Because the Code has never been formally adopted by the Court, it may be followed—or not—at the whim of individual justices, the Chief Justice’s assertions that justices are always models of ethical behavior notwithstanding.
Regrettably, the record shows that even though justices have asserted that they abide voluntarily by the Code, the recent behavior by several of them demonstrates that either they don’t understand its provisions or they are willing to ignore them. When Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas feel comfortable attending political strategy meetings of the Koch brothers and Samuel Alito willfully headlines fundraisers for conservative organizations, it’s clear that the provisions of the Code explicitly banning exactly that kind of behavior are not taken seriously.
Chief Justice Roberts’ statement today ensures that ambiguity, confusion, and uncertainty will continue to characterize the ethical environment of the Supreme Court. His decision will only serve to undermine confidence in the integrity of the Court in a year packed with high-profile cases of enormous importance and add to a growing public perception that our democratic institutions are increasingly opaque and unaccountable. No harm can come from volunteering to formally and strictly adhere to the same rules that every other judge abides by. Saint Augustine wrote of laying the “foundation of humility.” If the Court wants to rebuild its slipping reputation, that wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
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Extensive background materials on Supreme Court ethics rules and current controversies are available for download at www.aquestionofintegrity.org. The issue is also discussed in AFJ’s new short documentary film, A Question of Integrity: Politics, Ethics, and the Supreme Court, which can be viewed online.
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Alliance for Justice is a national association of over 100 organizations, representing a broad array of groups committed to progressive values and the creation of an equitable, just, and free society. AFJ works to ensure that the federal judiciary advances core constitutional values, preserves human rights and unfettered access to the courts, and adheres to the even-handed administration of justice for all Americans. It is the leading expert on the legal framework for nonprofit advocacy efforts, providing definitive information, resources, and technical assistance that encourages organizations and their funding partners to fully exercise their right to be active participants in the democratic process. AFJ is based in Washington, D.C.