Supreme Court adopts unenforceable "ethics" policy

Originally published at: Supreme Court adopts unenforceable "ethics" policy | Boing Boing


For Thomas and Alito, an unenforceable ethics policy is the best kind of ethics policy.

the court makes clear that it does not consider Clarence Thomas’s endless parade of undisclosed trips and gifts as misconduct, but rather a misunderstanding that you are suffering from.

In other words, gaslighting.


There is no question that what Thomas has done is worse, but to characterize Sotomayor’s ethics issues as having “staffers try to drum up sales of her book” is incredibly misleading. From the article you linked:

At Clemson University in South Carolina, school officials offered to buy 60 signed copies before a 2017 appearance; Sotomayor’s staff noted that most schools order around 400. Michigan State University asked Sotomayor to come to campus and in 2018 spent more than $100,000 on copies of her memoir, “My Beloved World,” to distribute to incoming first-year students. The books were shipped to the Supreme Court, where copies were taken to her chambers by court workers and signed by her before being sent to the school.

And later:

Sotomayor’s publisher, Penguin Random House, also has played a role in organizing her talks, in some cases pressing public institutions to commit to buying a specific number of copies or requesting that attendees purchase books to obtain tickets, emails show. The publisher has had several matters before the court in which Sotomayor did not recuse herself.

“Justice Sotomayor would have recused in cases in which Penguin Random House was a party, in light of her close and ongoing relationship with the publisher,” the Supreme Court said in a statement. “An inadvertent omission failed to bring Penguin’s participation in several cases to her attention; those cases ultimately were not selected for review by the Court. Chambers’ conflict check procedures have since been changed.”

Thomas is by far the worst offender of ethical violation on the Court, but he is not the only one, and it is not limited to the conservatives. This is a very real problem that is bigger than Thomas, and it needs to be fixed. This new policy, as this post rightly points out, does not do that because it’s really just a reaffirmation that the Code of Conduct that applies to other federal judges also applies to SCOTUS. It doesn’t change the fact that there’s still no enforcement mechanism, and that’s what is sorely needed.

ETA: For an example of how things should be, look to Elena Kagan, not Sotomayor. Kagan once declined a shipment of bagels and lox from her high school friends because she was concerned about it being a gift that would run afoul of ethics rules.


There is a 0% chance that the Supremes will actively enforce an ethics policy on themselves. This policy is simply lipstick on a pig designed to give the illusion of reform.

If the T***p era has taught us anything, it is that when the people with the power choose to look the other way, no rules or policy will stop them. Only independent, outside enforcement will work.


Damn. As you say, this is much less serious than anything that Thomas did, but I was still really hoping that Sotomayor was better than this.

My wife is a Federal employee (Geophysicist) who is not in a position of real power and she still has to abide by ethics standards much stricter than this. For example, they prohibit me from owning any stock in the company I work for because my company occasionally needs approval from the Department of the Interior for projects, and they don’t want her to have any incentive to do favors that would affect the stock price. (And there’s absolutely zero chance that she could even if she wanted to.)


A big part of the problem is that most of the enforcement of the Code of Conduct for other judges is done by higher courts. So if a district court judge should have recused themselves but didn’t, that can be grounds for an appeal, and the appeals court could overturn the district court ruling, remand the case back for a new trial, and sanction the judge. There’s no way to do that for SCOTUS because there is no higher court. So all of these rules have no teeth. Technically, Justices can be impeached, but that seems to be something Congress is extremely reluctant to do. The last time impeachment was even threatened was with Abe Fortas, and he resigned before it could happen.


If the Supreme Court was serious about holding themselves accountable they could voluntarily submit themselves to the authority of an independent ethics oversight board. But of course they aren’t so they won’t.


Thanks for keeping everyone honest on this one. All of this has got to be fixed.


Collegiate textbooks have long been a shady enterprise. It’s extraordinarily common for instructors to require books written by friends and other faculty in their classes because publishers require a certain number of assured sales in order to keep them in print. This is a very widespread tit-for-tat exchange. It’s also very common for PACs to purchase enough books by politicians they support and giving them away to donors and supporters in order to buy the book’s way onto the bestseller lists.


Unfortunately the new Code of Ethics explicitly says that it’s totally OK for justices to speak at events where their books are for sale:


by far, for sure. it took investigative reporters to discover even a fraction of the gifts, money, and support he’s getting from a man who’s stated goal has been to reshape the supreme court in a hyper conservative mold

i do think a difficult nut to crack is whether any justice should be allowed to publish a book, because the publishers are so consolidated, and so many justices write books: nearly everyone would have to recuse themselves anytime copyright or publishing comes up

getting rid of lifetime appointments would help them and us both ( rotating judges from the federal court system, rather then permanent untouchable justices )

at any rate, a working ethics mechanism would have told sotomayor to stop, and would have shown thomas ( and probably alito ) the door long ago

what she did is wrong, what thomas has done is inexcusable


How can they enforce that? Employees’ spouses do not sign their partners’ contracts of employment. How would your wife even know you held such stock if you chose not to tell her? How would her employer know?

She’s required to attest that neither she nor her spouse own stocks in certain companies as a condition of her employment. Would she get caught if she lied about it? Very unlikely. Could she get fired for something that I did? Maybe not if we took it to court and had a good lawyer. But she’s far too honest to lie about it and it didn’t seem worthwhile to fight it. It was annoying but my company’s stock hasn’t been doing especially great lately anyway.


That attestation must surely include the words ‘to the best of my knowledge’ - it certainly would if I were asked to make it!

You can’t prove a negative! :wink:

ETA what business is it of her employer whether she even has a spouse or not? (Yeah, USA - probably something to do with medical insurance?)

Yeah, well I wasn’t going to lie to her when she asked me.

Here’s some of the relevant language:


Unless @Otherbrother is filing taxes separately, at some point she would be signing off on both not owning them and on the proceeds from selling them as part of filing taxes. That would clearly be grounds for termination, or tax fraud. :man_shrugging:

Much easier to just not own them.

For me, my company doesn’t interact with my wife’s field, so it’s not an issue. :slight_smile: She does remind me every year to not buy any stocks that would conflict.

When she goes to conferences or interacts with companies, they’re not allowed to accept anything. No bagels, coffee, nothing that could be perceived to have any value at all. That the entire federal bureaucracy has to follow these rules, but that justices (and congress people) don’t have to follow the same rules is shameful.

They could probably relax them a little. I’m not sure how much “good will” some coffee an bagels would create. Maybe a donut or chocolate croissant would be too much. Certainly not as much as a luxury RV though.


The justices should be impeached and removed from the court.

Any implication of corruption undermines our entire justice system.


It was a big surprise for me to learn that my company interacts with the Department of the Interior in any meaningful way. They’re a multinational entertainment company, not a mineral extraction company leasing a lot of Federal land. But apparently they do have fingers in a lot of pies, including some kind of minor gas drilling or pipeline out in Florida or something.


Yes, Congress could impeach and remove a justice, but that would require right wingers to care more about preserving trust in the Court than about having control of it.


That is indeed a problem, and is used as a defence in public scandals about exactly this kind of insider trading by politicians’ spouses in Norway right now.

During Solberg’s two terms in office, from 2013 to 2021, her husband, Sindre Finnes, allegedly made more than 3,600 share deals, many of which would have disqualified her from the role.

“I mean very clearly that I have responsibility, and I have explained why: I thought I had fulfilled my responsibility,” Solberg, 62, said on Thursday. “I had no reason to believe that Sindre was deceiving me.”

Finnes has issued a statement through his lawyer, admitting that he lied to his wife about his trading but said that he never acted on inside information, which would have been a criminal offence.