‘Changes nothing,’ ‘Inadequate,’ ‘No real ethics, just vibes.’: Legal and ethics experts pan Supreme Court announcement

Ethics and legal analysts roundly criticized the Supreme Court’s announcement of a so-called ethics code Monday. Experts criticized the lack of an enforcement mechanism, ethics standards seemingly altered to hold the justices to lower standards than those that apply to other judges, and the Court’s insistence that the justices have been following ethical standards up until now despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The bottom line: the Court won’t even admit it has an ethics problem, let alone impose a system that would actually solve it.

Prof. Leah Litman: “The new SCOTUS ethics code: No real ethics, just vibes.”

Prof. Steve Vladeck: “For me, the issue has never been the Court’s ‘failure to enact a formal ethics code’; it’s the extent to which there is no means by which we can have any confidence that *whatever* rules apply to the justices are actually being followed. Today doesn’t move *that* needle at all.”

Prof. Eric Segall: “Folks, without an enforcement mechanism, and there isn’t one in the guidance, it changes nothing.”

Prof. Rachel Barkow: “Without any kind of enforcement mechanism, this has all the heft of a set of New Year’s resolutions.”

Prof. Anthony Michael Kreis: “A Code of Conduct with no meaningful enforcement mechanism is a mere gesture.”

Prof. Daniel Epps: “In terms of the content, it doesn’t seem to move the ball much.”

Prof. Kathleen Clark: “This is not a very big deal. … In terms of substance, this new code does very little.”

Richard Painter: “This Supreme Court ethics code covers the do’s and don’ts the justices said they were complying with anyway (but they weren’t). This ethics code also has no method of enforcement and spells out no consequences when justices don’t comply. Inadequate.”

Dahlia Lithwick: “Trust the same justices who declined to follow the old rules to better adhere to the new ones, they urge. This time they really will unilaterally and in secret make better choices. Then and only then will your confusion desist. […] Finally, there are lots of places in the new/old code where you will find sections that appear to have been reverse-engineered to paper over the misconduct that we have learned of this year with caveats about “knowingly” and “now in effect.”

Elie Mystal: “There’s no clearer indication that these rules are useless than the fact that the rules end up codifying Thomas’s outrageous behavior as ethically within bounds. According to the rules, not a single thing Thomas has done is a problem. Putting out a code of conduct that doesn’t restrain Thomas is like erecting a dam that doesn’t restrain water. It’s just a gigantic waste of everyone’s time.”

Madiba Dennie: “As a tool for imposing meaningful ethical standards on life-tenured justices, the code is a total failure.”

Sherrilyn Ifill: “What I’ve seen is concerning. None of us should be in charge of creating w/o consultation, the ethics rules that will cover our own conduct. The temptation to reverse engineer is too great. Of course the question of enforceability is paramount. But there are other concerns.”

Noah Bookbinder: “The new Supreme Court code of ethics does not contain an enforcement mechanism. It also allows the rule of disqualification to be overcome by other factors, meaning justices could hear cases when they have conflicts. Those problems need to be fixed.”

Steve Benen: “the Supreme Court believes we, the public, were simply confused. We saw some justices become embroiled in ethics scandals, grew concerned, and concluded that there’s a need for new guardrails. The high court’s new statement effectively tells Americans, ‘Don’t worry, the guardrails were there all along, and we’re now putting them in writing to avoid any misunderstandings.’ If this was intended to be reassuring, the justices failed.”

Max Kennerly: “Solid work by the Roberts court, cutting-and-pasting normal judicial ethics and then adding a ‘whoopsie!’ exception so they can claim the repeatedly violations by Thomas and Alito were not ‘knowingly.’”