Yay! The Supreme Court has a code of conduct! Sorta.

Finally! The Supreme Court has been acting like a troop of freebooters, running loose and without any ethics to limit their greed, but now in a surprise announcement, they have released a set of rules they’re supposed to follow.

The absence of an ethics code has given the impression “that the Justices of this Court, unlike all other jurists in this country, regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules,” said the statement, signed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and his eight colleagues. “To dispel this misunderstanding, we are issuing this Code, which largely represents a codification of principles that we have long regarded as governing our conduct.”

Except…there’s nothing there. They wrote down a set of things that general public expects would limit the behavior of justices, but they’re so vague that they don’t do much to regulate any constraints — they’re so wide open that they ultimately let individuals do whatever they feel like.

An unsigned “commentary” accompanying the code indicates that justices will continue to make their own decisions about recusals and speaking engagements. It says justices should “consider whether doing so would create an appearance of impropriety in the minds of reasonable members of the public.”

The code does not squarely confront questions about lavish trips and gifts that some justices have received from billionaire friends, or questions about recusals.

I get it. “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules,” to quote the movie pirate Hector Barbossa. It’s got no teeth.

Supreme Court justices stung by controversies over the court’s ethics pledged Monday to follow a broad code of conduct promoting “integrity and impartiality,” but without a way to enforce its standards against those who fall short.

I think we need to stop thinking of Supreme Court justices as in any way trustworthy. To quote another movie pirate, Jack Sparrow, they’re all thinking “I’m dishonest, and a dishonest man you can always trust to be dishonest. Honestly, it’s the honest ones you want to watch out for, because you can never predict when they’re going to do something incredibly stupid.”

Fair enough. I trust the Supreme Court justices to be dishonest thieves. It’s unfortunate, though, that none of them have any swashbuckling charisma to compensate.


  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    Once again, our outdated and badly-written constitution strikes again because our illustrious Founding Fathers either couldn’t imagine the level of corruption that exists today or they didn’t really care so long as they got a piece of the action,

  2. SchreiberBike says

    The introduction to the code says: “The Court has long had the equivalent of common law ethics rules, that is, a body of rules derived from a variety of sources, including statutory provisions, the code that applies to other members of the federal judiciary, ethics advisory opinions issued by the Judicial Conference Committee on Codes of Conduct, and historic practice.” They are acknowledging that the rules of ethics apply to them. I think that is something new. I think by acknowledging that, they are effectively saying “impeach Thomas and Alito. What they did was against the rules of ethics that existed before and exists now.”

  3. Larry says

    The thing has a whole bunch of “should” and few, if any, “must”. It isn’t worth the paper and ink used to print it. There is nothing in it that will stop Kavanaugh and Thomas to continue their grifting. They were probably chuckling as they wrote it.

  4. ANB says

    Unfortunately for the liberals in the Court, who have demonstrated that they do live by a set of ethical guidelines and adhere to it closely, they have also been branded as “untrustworthy” because of the egregious conduct of their peers. The problem isn’t “the Supreme Court,” per se, but those on it who don’t (won’t) want to be “constrained” by cumbersome ethical rules.

    “The Supreme Court is untrustworthy” and “all politicians are corrupt” are easy to say, but it’s just not a universal fact.

  5. ardipithecus says

    It’s a desperate cry for help. “Please please, someone, impose some integrity upon us!”

  6. says

    I can’t agree with #7 ardipithecus: It’s a desperate cry for help. “Please please, someone, impose some integrity upon us!”
    I reply: By the accurate reports of their actions, the majority of rtwingnut xtian terrorists on the alleged ‘supreme’ court (I agree with @6 ANB on the three honest justices) have been happy to wallow in their corruption. There is no call for someone to ‘impose integrity on us’.
    And, I find R. Reich to be knowledgeable and credible:
    The title of his article is a most accurate assessment and many others have said the same already.

  7. robro says

    Akira @ #1 — A Constitutional Convention could be a good thing. I’m all for it. Except…conservative, evangelicals have been calling for one for years so they can enshrine their “Christian” views into the resulting document to allow prayer and Bible blathering in schools. I’m sure business leaders also want to enshrine their right to exploit labor and eliminate government meddling in their practices. And of course, there’s getting rid of some of that unnecessary baggage like the 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, and 19th amendments which would give white men what they want. If a new convention ended up like the first, and given the current social/political environment, you’re not going to get everything you want and you will get some things you definitely don’t want.

  8. Nathaniel Hellerstein says

    Sorry, Jack Sparrow, but dishonest men can also do something incredibly stupid. For instance, Trump.

  9. Akira MacKenzie says

    @ 9

    That’s the reason why I’ve resigned myself to the eminent collapse of our shitty society. We can’t fix it and even if we could, no one really WANTS to fix it. I just hope our deaths are swift and painless.

  10. ardipithecus says

    @8 shermanj

    I did not mean to intimate that any member of the Supreme Court is aware that it is a desperate cry. But, surely, this document must serve as a call for a genuine ethics code to be imposed from the legislative branch.

  11. says

    Did you expect otherwise? It’s not like the houses of Congress don’t have loopholes in their codes of conduct which are so big you could run a train line through them. The Republicans are, as always, a cesspit of corruption, but the Democrats really aren’t much better — Pelosi, whose husband made a vast amount of money working with industries she was supposed to regulate, killed the bill that was supposed to ban insider trading by Congress members; Biden’s 2005 bankruptcy bill which sold out the public to the credit card companies was introduced at almost the same time that Hunter got a high-paying job as a consultant, for which he was dubiously qualified, with MBNA (a national credit-card-issuing bank later absorbed by Bank of America); 13 of the 22 Democrats who voted to censor Tlaib over Palestine are funded by AIPAC, and 5 of them received over $100K in 2022. And there’s no incentive for them to do otherwise because anybody who dares point out the obvious corruption will be derided as either a Republican saboteur or “demanding purity tests” by the Vote Blue No Matter Who idiots. Since the SCOTUS is appointed for life, they don’t even have to worry about an easily-neutered challenge to their reelection.

  12. gijoel says

    Fair enough. I trust the Supreme Court justices to be dishonest thieves. It’s unfortunate, though, that none of them have any swashbuckling charisma to compensate.

    And now I have the Crimson Permanent Assurance running through my head.

  13. Larry says

    But, surely, this document must serve as a call for a genuine ethics code to be imposed from the legislative branch.

    The problem there is the Robert’s Calvinball court would find some made-up reason to declare it unconstitutional, allowing the members to continue basically doing whatever they want. In the words of Louis XV, King of France, “It’s good to be king, er, justice”.

  14. says

    The ethics “code” is an artful example of moving the goalposts. In no particular order:

    • It doesn’t prohibit justices from taking dubious contributions, vacations, etc. so long as they disclose them. That is, the bribe can’t be in small bills, no consecutive serial numbers, in a brown paper bag handed over in the elevator; if it’s properly disclosed (perhaps in a game of oneupsmanship in the justices’ private dining room?) it’s just fine.

    • The “code” makes a number of attempts to distinguish “political organizations” from other kinds of organizations, without ever even trying to define a “political organization.” One wonders if there would be a 6–3 vote (in conference, naturally, so there will be no public disclosure or record for fifty years — and that is literally the release date) on whether the Federalist Society is a “political organization” — or, more to the point, whether NPR is. And the same questions as to “legal education and reform”…

    • Dark money? Laundering of sources so that a “contribution” for a particular type of thing comes from an “acceptable” source for that purpose? Sounds good to me! The justices have imposed on themselves no duty to inquire whatsoever. Not even after the fact.

    • What is the remedy for a party that is harmed by a breach? Consider the party that loses a 5–4 decision and discovers, after the decision issues but before the time to file a petition for rehearing has expired, that one of the justices in the majority had a conflict under the text of this “code” that should have required disqualification.†

    I could go on, but I’ll just note that I’m neither particularly surprised nor particularly disappointed, because what the Court has done here has all of the weight, all of the self-examination, and all of the deterrance-from-intentional-and-knowing-misconduct value as the various ethical provisions for the rest of the profession. Remember: Villains almost never believe that they’re villains — they can almost always come up with a self-convincing (self-deluding?) rationale. I’ve never seen R. Prof. Cond. 3.1 or 3.4 enforced without other substantial misconduct… but they’re violated by one or both sides in at least 5% of civil (non-family-law) cases in which both sides have lawyers.

    † I wish this was entirely hypothetical, but it’s only partly hypothetical; not really all that long ago, I was a consultant on a matter in a Court of Appeals in which a 2–1 decision was issued when a judge in the majority should have recused (albeit that one was at least partially excusable as it involved one of those “family member conflicts” with a name change). That I’ve encountered the analogous situation already indicates to me that this should at least be covered. Fortunately for the party, the petition for rehearing was accepted on the merits en banc (that is, the entire set of x judges sat together to rehear the case, not just a panel of three) and got a better outcome… especially since the judge who should have recused the first time around did for the rehearing.

  15. John Morales says

    Jaws, perhaps a cynical viewpoint may be in order: it’s quite convenient to have rules or norms that can be applied, well, at one’s discretion, but need not be applied.

    (Or, Goose-Gander thingie)

  16. xmnr says

    I just completed my agency’s ethics training.


    Some of the infractions could result in criminal charges with penalties of five years imprisonment and $60k in fines.

    An example of an acceptable gift (with mandatory reporting): no, not private flights to resorts—a coffee mug.

    In another example, an employee couldn’t accept a raffled-off iPad because the convention wasn’t open to the public.

  17. says


    Convenient, yes. In the short run. Because if they’re sufficiently malleable, they’re self-destructive in the medium and long run. (Been there once already in my prior profession, but then they started actually enforcing Article 133 for other than sleeping with the general’s relatives and things got a bit better.) The point being that it’s really hard to maintain a necessary reputation for moral authority when the applicable code of ethics is “yeah, whatever.”

  18. says

    @5 Larry wrote: whole bunch of “should” and few, if any, “must”. It isn’t worth the paper and ink used to print it.
    I reply: Yes, you hit on one of the most blatant issues. Also, there is no provision for any outside watchdog system to provide input and there is NO disciplinary mechanism. They won’t be held responsible even if they ‘shoot someone on 5th avenue’.
    @12 ardipithecus wrote: surely, this document must serve as a call for a genuine ethics code to be imposed from the legislative branch.
    I reply: Thanks for the clarification. I agree wholeheartedly. about the need for an outside agency to ensure ethical behavior of this court. My only concern is that the legislative branch is too busy with physical violence, posturing and attempts to impose a ‘spanish inquisition’ to fulfill that task.
    As many news articles have ponted

  19. inflection says

    Actual pirates had written articles, which recruits were to sign, and which were followed up by enforced punishments for breakage. This has neither of the latter.

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