Roberts’ reassuring words evade the ethical issues facing Supreme Court

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  • Dale Eisman

Chief Justice John Roberts deserves credit for finally addressing questions about ethics enforcement at the Supreme Court, but it will take more than just a few reassuring words to restore public confidence in the Court’s adherence to accepted ethical standards, Common Cause said Sunday.

“It’s gratifying that the chief justice clearly takes seriously the issues we’ve been raising about the Court’s adherence to accepted ethical standards,” said Bob Edgar, president of the non-partisan government watchdog group. “Unfortunately, his statement can be summed up in two words: ‘trust us.’ And quite simply, that’s not good enough.”

To restore public confidence in the administration of justice, the justices need to formally adopt the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges – the same code that applies throughout the rest of the federal court system – and to work with Congress to establish a mechanism to apply and enforce it, Edgar said.

“The Court also must establish transparent processes for addressing conflict of interest questions that arise under federal law and for ensuring that justices fully comply with the letter and spirit of the Ethics in Government Act,” Edgar said.

Edgar said all the issues raised by the chief justice in his annual year-end report in explaining the court’s failure to formally adopt the code can be addressed through legislation or procedures the court could set for itself. There’s no reason, for example, why the court could not adopt a policy of requiring that its members respond in writing to motions that they disqualify themselves from particular cases on conflict of interest grounds.

“Our system of government is based on the idea of checks and balances – each branch of government acts as a check on the others,” Edgar said. “But when it comes to ethics enforcement, there is no one and nothing to check on the Supreme Court. We can do better. We must do better.”