Building an Equal Justice Judiciary Requires Ethics Reform Now

Courts Resources 06.12.23

Our federal courts must work for all of us, not just the wealthy and powerful. Our judges and justices make decisions that shape our democracy and determine whether we can live free and full lives in which our civil and human rights are respected and protected.

But the wealthy and powerful few have stacked the deck in their own favor and against the rights of everyday people. And now, recent media reports have detailed deeply concerning patterns of Supreme Court justices refusing to hold themselves to basic ethical standards, raising questions about the very integrity of our nation’s most powerful court. In November, reports indicated that an anti-abortion activist intentionally created opportunities to influence and embolden the Court’s most extreme members. According to more recent reports, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas has, for decades, failed to disclose lavish gifts he received from billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow, despite the disclosure requirements in the 1978 Ethics in Government Act. Justice Thomas also reportedly failed to disclose his sale of three properties to Crow and the private school tuition Crow reportedly paid for a relative of Justice Thomas.

These and other troubling reports are not anomalies — instead, they come on the heels of reporting about wealthy extremists seeking to embolden the Court’s ultraconservative flank by buying access to the justices. These escalating patterns of misconduct are unethical, unacceptable, and damaging to the rule of law. They have also powerfully demonstrated that we need serious and immediate congressional action on judicial ethics.

The Leadership Conference and our Fair Courts Task Force have spoken out on the need for urgent action to address these patterns of misconduct.

  • On April 6, in response to initial reports of Crow’s lavish gifts, we released a statement calling for ethics reform legislation that includes an extension of the Code of Conduct for United States judges to apply to Supreme Court justices, in addition to further necessary transparency measures and additional oversight efforts.
  • On April 18, in a letter signed by more than 50 national organizations, we echoed these calls and urged “sustained oversight of and investigation into these reports and other instances of misconduct by federal judges.”
  • On May 2, we spoke outside the U.S. Capitol with other organizations at a press conference calling for ethics reform NOW. As Lena Zwarensteyn, senior director of our fair courts program said, “The need for ethics reform is clear, and this reform is a crucial part of our work to build a judiciary that lives up to its promise of Equal Justice Under Law.” Zwarensteyn also called for the nomination and confirmation of ethical, fair-minded, and highly qualified judicial nominees who have a demonstrated commitment to civil and human rights and who reflect and represent our nation’s rich diversity.
  • Immediately after the press conference, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Supreme Court ethics reform. We submitted a statement for the record from Maya Wiley, our president and CEO, restating our support for ethics reform legislation and sustained efforts to investigate this crisis.
  • On June 8, we supported the reintroduction of the Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act, introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Pramila Jayapal. This bill would reform our judicial ethics laws by making the Code of Conduct binding on Supreme Court justices, as well as strengthening recusal standards and disclosure requirements and increasing transparency across the entire federal judiciary.

During the May 2 hearing, Sen. Mazie Hirono noted that “The Supreme Court has a huge impact on the daily lives of every single American,” citing decisions that overturned Roe v. Wade and that gutted the Voting Rights Act as clear examples. This statement demonstrated an important truth: Our concerns about the escalating ethics crisis are not academic or theoretical. This is about who our Court serves and whose rights are upheld. The Supreme Court and the nine justices appointed to that Court for life have far-reaching power over the lives and freedoms of all of us. And that is why the civil rights community has consistently called for congressional action in response to the ongoing crisis and has long recognized that ethics reform is a critical part of the work to build an equal justice judiciary. This work must include:

  • Passage of a binding Code of Conduct for Supreme Court justices
  • Stronger recusal standards
  • Improved transparency and disclosure requirements
  • Continued investigations into disturbing reports of ethics violations
  • Nomination and confirmation of highly qualified and diverse judges who are committed to civil and human rights

These steps are critically important because our courts are supposed to protect the rights of all of us. And for our democracy to work, judges and justices must earn the public’s trust that they make decisions without bias and free from undue influence. The Supreme Court must have credibility with the public that its decisions are informed by facts and law, not wealth and power.

Our communities depend on federal judges and justices to fairly administer justice for all people in America. Congress must immediately address the ongoing judicial ethics crisis and ensure that our Supreme Court lives up to its sacred promise.