In April 2023, NYCLA issued a report calling for the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt a set of robust, transparent ethical rules and arguing that if they fail to do so Congress would have the authority to do it for them. This goal is consistent with NYCLA’s mission to have a judiciary independent of outside influences and improper bias. In light of this mission, we are pleased to hear recent reports that the Senate Judiciary Committee has begun to hold hearings respecting legislation that would (among other things) require the Supreme Court to “issue a code of conduct for the justices of the Supreme Court”. NYCLA, however, calls on the Judiciary Committee to go faster—and further. In addition to requiring that SCOTUS issue a code of conduct, the Judiciary Committee should fully and publicly investigate the recent allegations of ethical impropriety on the part of Justice Clarence Thomas.
The legislation under consideration (the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act, or “SCERT Act”) would almost certainly require full disclosure of the kinds of gifts and other perks that have lately made Justice Thomas a focus of so much press, most notably by ProPublica. If ProPublica’s reports are true (and we have no reason to believe they are not), the legislation would also provide a clearer path to a Justice’s recusal in similar circumstances going forward.
Justice Thomas is obviously not the only Justice who could face consequences under the proposed legislation. He has, however, become a lightning rod in the debate over judicial ethics that (as our April report also notes) has substantially eroded public confidence in the Supreme Court. That is why, although we applaud the Committee for moving forward with this legislation and hope to see it continue to advance, we also urge the Committee to continue to focus on the equally important work of pressing its investigation of Justice Thomas—whose alleged conduct appears to violate already-existing ethical norms.
We greatly value the press and other media and the key public service they perform by reporting on matters such as the distressing alleged financial ties between Justice Thomas and political donor Harlan Crow. But unless and until the Committee presses its investigation, those news reports are the public’s only source of information about these matters. The issues at stake are too critical—and the public’s need to understand them is too important—to leave them much longer to the speculation that has inevitably resulted from the absence of a full and formal examination. Both the public and Justice Thomas himself deserve better.
About the New York County Lawyers Association
The New York County Lawyers Association (www.nycla.org) was founded in 1908 as one of the first major bar associations in the country that admitted members without regard to race, ethnicity, religion or gender, and has a long history of supporting the rights of LGBTQ+ people. Since its inception, NYCLA has pioneered some of the most far-reaching and tangible reforms in American jurisprudence. For more information on NYCLA please visit nycla.org.