U.S. Supreme Court Needs an Ethics Code, according to ABA

The American Bar Association (ABA) has passed a resolution calling for the U.S. Supreme Court to implement a judicial ethics code, similar to the code of conduct that applies to all other federal judges. The resolution was passed at a meeting of the ABA's 591-member policy-making body held in New Orleans recently. The move comes amid concerns that the absence of a clear and binding code of ethics for Supreme Court justices is threatening the legitimacy of the court.

The ABA has warned that if the legitimacy of the Supreme Court is diminished, the legitimacy of the entire U.S. judicial system is at risk. While federal judges on lower courts are bound by the Code of Judicial Conduct, which sets out rules for their conduct both on and off the bench, the Supreme Court has no such code of ethics. This has led to calls from Democrats for the court to adopt such a code.

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The ABA resolution notes that the Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to avoid the appearance of impropriety, refrain from political activity, and recuse themselves from cases where their impartiality may be called into question. The Supreme Court has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months, and public opinion of the court plummeted after it overturned the constitutional right to abortion in June.

A poll conducted by Marquette Law School in January 2023 found that public approval of the court had risen to 47% after hitting a low of 38% in June. However, this is still well below the 66% approval rating the court enjoyed in September 2020.

The ABA resolution also calls on federal, state, local, and territorial bar associations to adopt their own resolutions urging the Supreme Court to adopt a code of ethics.

In his 2011 annual report, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that it was a misconception that the judicial code of conduct applied only to lower federal courts. He said that the justices consulted the code when assessing their ethical obligations, but that it was not their only source of guidance. Roberts also pointed out that the justices could seek advice from the Court's Legal Office, the Judicial Conference's Committee on Codes of Conduct, and their colleagues.

The Supreme Court press office did not respond to requests for comment on the ABA resolution. In May, the House Judiciary Committee advanced a bill that would have forced the Supreme Court to develop its own ethics policy, but the legislation stalled before reaching the full House.