WASHINGTON, D.C., January 16, 2015: A Supreme Court case that will test the strength and effectiveness of judicial codes of conduct will be decided by the only nine members of the federal judiciary in America who are not subject to such a code, according to a report released today by Alliance for Justice.
The Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Tuesday, January 20th, in Williams Yulee v. The Florida Bar, a case concerning a candidate for county court judge in Florida who is challenging a provision of the state’s code of judicial conduct.
The judicial candidate, Lanell Williams-Yulee, signed a fundraising letter announcing her candidacy and asked those receiving the letter to contribute to her campaign. This is contrary to the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct – and many other such codes across the country.
“A ruling for Williams-Yulee could call into question not only the Florida rule but also a whole host of state and federal rules governing what judges can say and do – all implemented in the interest of preserving judicial integrity,” according to AFJ’s report. These rules include prohibitions on judges endorsing candidates and making speeches before political organizations.
The Supreme Court has issued decisions that emphasize the importance of such codes. “But when it comes to judicial ethics, the Supreme Court has talked the talk but failed to walk the walk,” said AFJ President Nan Aron. “The Court has refused to be bound by the Code of Conduct that applies to every other federal judge. And in several cases, the conduct of Supreme Court justices has fallen short of the standards set by that code.”
As the report notes:
Despite Canon 4’s prohibition on participating in fundraising activities, Justice Alito has headlined fundraising events for the conservative magazine The American Spectator and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative think tank. Justice Thomas has been featured at fundraisers for the Heritage Foundation and the National Association of Broadcasters. Similarly, Justices Scalia and Thomas have attended invitation-only political retreats hosted by the Koch brothers, although Canon 5 prohibits judges from engaging in political activity.
These failings are outlined in detail in AFJ’s short documentary, A Question of Integrity.
Aron said the justices of the Supreme Court need to take two steps to avoid further eroding public confidence in a fair and impartial judiciary.
“First, they need to reject Williams-Yulee’s efforts to weaken existing codes of conduct. Then they need to adopt a binding code of conduct for themselves. And if they won’t do it voluntarily, Congress should require it by passing the Supreme Court Ethics Act.”
As AFJ explains in its report:
The Supreme Court should reject Williams-Yulee’s claims and uphold Florida’s ruling that the code of judicial conduct furthers the state’s compelling interest in preserving the integrity of the judiciary and maintaining the public’s confidence in an impartial judiciary.
Simply put, the problem facing our justice system today is not too much policing of judicial ethics, but too little. To protect the integrity of the judicial system, preserve public confidence in our justice system, and ensure an impartial judiciary so that all Americans are able to secure their rights in court, it is time for the Supreme Court to take its avowed respect for codes of conduct to the next level by finally adopting its own code of conduct.
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. Through our justice programs, we lead the progressive community in the fight for a fair judiciary, and through our advocacy programs, we help nonprofits and foundations to realize their advocacy potential.