Answer: No! The nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices are the only federal judges not bound by the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges, which goes beyond the basic ethics laws enacted after the Watergate scandal and creates uniformity around thorny issues like recusals and participation in political activities.
History: The Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges requires federal judges to maintain high standards of conduct, avoid conflicts of interest, and act impartially in all cases. It also prohibits them from engaging in certain activities, such as participating in political campaigns or accepting gifts from parties or persons who may have an interest in pending cases.
Analysis: Although the Justices consult the Code, along with other sources, for guidance when performing their judicial duties, the Court is not presently subject to a defined body of general ethical rules. Supreme Court Justices are expected to recuse themselves for financial conflicts of interest or for the appearance of partiality in a case.
Some observers maintain that “Supreme Court justices should be bound by the same code of ethics that all other federal judges are required to follow.” To that end, some Members of Congress have introduced legislation that would require the Judicial Conference to “issue a code of conduct which applies to each justice” on the Court. While some commentators and legislators have supported ethical rules for the Supreme Court for years, the issue gained increased prominence [in 2022].
Congressional Research Service, Legal Sidebar (April 6, 2022), available at: https://sgp.fas.org/crs/misc/LSB10255.pdf.
There have been instances in the past where justices have been accused of violating ethical rules. For example, in 1969, Justice Abe Fortas resigned from the Supreme Court amid allegations of ethical improprieties, including his acceptance of a secret retainer from a foundation and his involvement in advising President Lyndon B. Johnson on the Vietnam War.
More recently, the late-Justice Antonin Scalia was criticized for his participation in hunting trips with a prominent attorney whose cases were being heard by the Supreme Court. Some argued that these trips could create a perception of bias and undermine public confidence in the impartiality of the Court.
In another instance, Justice Clarence Thomas was accused of violating ethical rules when his wife’s political activities came under scrutiny. His wife’s involvement in conservative organizations and advocacy work raised questions about potential conflicts of interest and impartiality in cases related to those organizations.
Despite these examples, it’s important to note that allegations of ethics violations against Supreme Court Justices are relatively rare. The vast majority of Justices have maintained high ethical standards throughout their tenures on the Court.
- “With the Supreme Court facing a series of ethics scandals, U.S. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Representatives Hank Johnson (D-GA), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Mike Quigley (D-IL), and David Cicilline (D-RI) … reintroduced the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act to bring basic transparency and accountability standards to the Supreme Court.”
“Sens. Whitehouse and Blumenthal and Reps. Johnson, Nadler, Quigley, and Cicilline Introduce New Version of Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, & Transparency Act,” (March 9, 2023), available at: https://www.whitehouse.senate.gov/news/release/new-version-of-supreme-court-ethics-recusal-and-transparency-act.
- “[T]wo groups have written what they call a model code of conduct for the Supreme Court. And it’s getting generally favorable reviews.”
Nina Totenberg, “Outside groups take a first stab at a Supreme Court ethics code,” NPR.org (March 9, 2023), available at: https://www.npr.org/2023/03/09/1162324746/outside-groups-take-a-first-stab-at-a-supreme-court-ethics-code.
- “A new investigation  reports nearly $600,000 in anonymous donations to Crowdsourcers for Culture and Liberty, a right-wing activist organization led by Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The money was channeled through the Capital Research Center, a conservative think tank…. “[T]he arrangement, known as a ‘fiscal sponsorship,’ effectively shielded from public view details about Crowdsourcers’ activities and spending, information it would have had to disclose publicly if it operated as a separate nonprofit organization, experts said.”
Sarah Posner, “The Supreme Court’s Ginni Thomas problem is bigger than legal ethics,” MSNBC.com (March 31, 2023), available at: https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/msnbc-opinion/supreme-court-ginni-thomas-clarence-thomas-donations-rcna77286.