The Supreme Court on Monday issued a code of conduct for itself for the first time, but it conceded the rules are “not new” and simply restate the principles it says its justices have long followed.
The announcement said the justices hoped the code would “dispel this misunderstanding” that they “regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules.”
But this modest effort is unlikely to end the controversy created by Justice Clarence Thomas and his free luxury vacations, paid for by Texas real estate billionaire Harlan Crow.
That’s because there is still no enforcement mechanism behind the court’s code of conduct, and the justices remain free to decide for themselves whether particular gifts or travels cross a line and are prohibited.
All federal judges already follow the same code of conduct, but unlike the justices, they can face an investigation or even a reprimand for an ethics violation.
The Supreme Court has maintained that its justices are independent, and they are not subject to oversight from outside authorities.
ProPublica and other news organizations reported Thomas has regularly taken large and undisclosed gifts that came to him only because he sits on the nation’s highest court.
They include a decade’s worth of free luxury vacations and travel on a private jet owned by Crow. Private school tuition for the child Thomas was raising was paid for as was the purchase and renovation of his mother’s house in Savannah, Ga.
Thomas turned to another wealthy friend to pay $267,000 to buy him a luxury recreational vehicle.
Ethics laws forbid judges from accepting gifts from people “whose interests may be substantially affected” by a decision.
Judges are required to disclose the cost of travel and lodging that was paid for by others. And they are required by law to step aside or recuse themselves from deciding cases where their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”