Madison, WI, January 9, 2012—The Center for Media and Democracy today joined a coalition of public interest organizations in calling for the United States Supreme Court to agree to follow the Code of Conduct for U.S. judges.
CMD joined the Alliance for Justice, American Association of University Women, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Common Cause, Communications Workers of America, CREDO Action, Equal Justice Society, League of United Latin American Citizens, National Employment Lawyers Association, People for the American Way Foundation, and U.S. Public Interest Research Group in a letter to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. The letter calls on the Court to "take it upon itself to agree to be bound by the Code," and "do so unequivocally and publicly." (The coalition's letter to Chief Justice Roberts is uploaded down below.)
The conduct of the six men and three women appointed to the highest court in the land is claimed not to be governed by the basic ethical standards governing every other judge in the federal court system, according to Chief Justice Roberts, 56, an appointee of President George W. Bush. The Code of Conduct was adopted decades ago by the circuit (appellate) and district (trial) court judges on the U.S. Judicial Conference in order to protect the integrity and independence of the federal courts for all Americans. The rules help protect the people's vital interest in a fair judiciary by limiting unethical conduct by the hundreds of men and women with lifetime jobs sitting in judgment in federal cases.
Judges Are Supposed to Avoid Even the Appearance of Impropriety
The outside activities of one third of the justices sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court have called into question their commitment to avoiding impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all their conduct. Specifically, Canon 2 of the Code of Conduct mandates that "A judge should not allow family, social, political, financial, or other relationships to influence judicial conduct or judgment. A judge should neither lend the prestige of the judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others nor convey or permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence the judge." Many believe these standards have been violated by three sitting justices.
Justice Antonin Scalia (75, an appointee of Ronald Reagan) and Justice Clarence Thomas (63, an appointee of George H.W. Bush) have attended exclusive events at private resorts orchestrated by the billionaire oil barons Charles and David Koch, which the brothers use to advance their partisan political agenda. (A copy of the Koch Industries invitation and briefing material is uploaded below.) Justice Thomas has also accepted gifts of travel on the private jets of billionaire Harlan Crow, and he has not been fully forthcoming about the income and political activities of his wife, Ginny Thomas, who launched a group, Liberty Central, to take advantage of the Supreme Court's controversial ruling in the case that struck down election rules, "Citizens United," before the decision in the case was even issued publicly in 2010. And Justice Samuel Alito (51, an appointee of the last Bush) has headlined fundraising events for right-wing organizations, such as the American Spectator magazine.
CMD Says No Supreme Court Justice Is Above the Law
In CMD's view, no one is above the law, especially not justices given lifelong jobs on the Supreme Court. Our highest court should adhere to only the highest standards, and commit publicly to acting beyond reproach. CMD urges the Senate to hold hearings examining the activities of Justices Thomas, Scalia, and Alito that appear to violate the ethical norms for judicial officers. In CMD's view, it simply cannot be the case that the judges given lifetime jobs as the final word in cases affecting our constitutional rights are not obligated to act ethically. This is not just a crisis of confidence in the U.S. Supreme Court's fairness. It is an ethical crisis for justices to behave the way they have.
Over the past several months, CMD has been investigating the activities of Justice Thomas and his billionaire buddies, the Kochs and Crow, as well as efforts by corporate CEOs to influence and distort public policy and the law. (This past summer, CMD launched ALECexposed.org, along with profiles of politicians, corporations, and CEOs involved in efforts to remake the law through the American Legislative Exchange Council. Several organizations, such as Common Cause, People for the American Way, and ProgressNow, have written crucial reports on these matters.)
Advocates Raise Serious Concerns about Supreme Ethical Failings
The Alliance for Justice (AFJ), which is led by Nan Aron, has asked concerned citizens to join in asking Chief Justice Roberts to have the Supreme Court adopt and agree to follow the Code of Conduct. The Alliance, which represents 100 organizations committed to progressive values and the creation of an equitable, just, and free society, prepared this illuminating video to explain the ethical concerns raised by the conduct of Justices Thomas, Scalia, and Alito. AFJ's Aron said "With so much at stake at the Supreme Court this year, the justices can no longer avoid the need to make an unequivocal, final, and formal commitment to the highest possible ethical standards." Lisa Maatz of the AAUW added, "The court should stand for justice and fundamental fairness," but in failing to enforce ethical standards on the justices, "the Supreme Court risks losing the confidence of the people."
Common Cause has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for disclosure of details about Justice Thomas' use of billionaire Harlan Crow's private jets and yachts. Common Cause, which is led by Bob Edgar, has also asked the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, to investigate whether Justices Thomas and Scalia should have recused themselves from the Citizens United case under 28 U.S.C. § 455, based on their attendance at the Koch brothers' events and Ginny Thomas' activities surrounding that case. Common Cause also asked the Justice Department to ask the Court to vacate the judgment in that case if the Department concludes there are sufficient grounds for disqualification of either judge. Edgar observed that "It is time for our highest court to meet the highest standards" and to stop making excuses for why it does not want to apply the Code of Conduct to the justices.
"It's a travesty that at the Supreme Court of the United States judicial ethics has been transformed from a badge of honor to an oxymoron," added Becky Bond of CREDO Action.
A group of House Democrats, led by Representative Louise Slaughter of New York, are also pushing for a Justice Department investigation into various possible ethics infractions by Justice Thomas. People for the American Way (PFAW), which is led by Michael Keegan, has asked citizens to join them in urging the U.S. Judicial Conference (which adopted the Code of Conduct) to refer the matter of Justice Thomas' failure to fully disclose his wife's income and activities to the Justice Department.
"The nation's highest court shouldn't have the lowest ethical standards," said Marge Baker, PFAW's Executive Vice President, adding "Applying the Code of Conduct to the Supreme Court is a common sense move that will help ensure that Americans can count on basic fairness throughout our judicial system."
Chief Justice Roberts was dismissive of calls for ethics reform in his annual end-of-year letter issued last week. Public interest groups are jointly sending the letter today to renew the call for the Supreme Court to formally abide by the ethical rules that are supposed to govern the conduct of all federal judges.
Lisa Graves is the Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which publishes PRWatch.org, SourceWatch.org, and BanksterUSA.org. Our latest investigation is ALECexposed.org. She formerly served as the Deputy Chief of the Article III Judges Division of the U.S. Courts (the division overseeing disclosure of gifts and income by judges), as Chief Nominations Counsel for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice. CMD does not accept grants from for-profit corporations or government agencies.