Legal experts detail what a Supreme Court ethics code might look like

U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court, in Washington, D.C. Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images

After a number of controversial rulings and scandals involving sitting justices, the public’s faith in the Supreme Court is at an all-time low. One potential remedy to help restore trust is the introduction of an ethics code that would establish new rules governing the nine-member panel.  

The idea, which has enjoyed support from mostly Democrats, may have just received a key endorsement from one of the Supreme Court’s most conservative members. 

This week, Justice Amy Coney Barrett appeared to call for the adoption of a new code of ethics for the Supreme Court — one that, she notes, would help “communicate … exactly what it is that we are doing in a clearer way.” 

“It would be a good idea for us to do it,” she said on Monday, according to the New York Times. 

The court’s reputation has been marred in recent days by accusations that several of its members failed to report gifts and luxury travel. Chief among the accused are Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Legal groups have called on Chief Justice John Roberts to enforce stricter recusal standards amid concerns that their ties to wealthy donors may be influencing the justices’ conduct. 

“The recent ethics scandals with Justices Thomas and Alito are at best not helpful, and at worst a main reason for declining public support,” says Dan Urman, director of the law and public policy minor at Northeastern, who teaches courses on the Supreme Court.

According to recent polling, up to 60% of the public disapproves of the job the court is doing, particularly on key issues such as abortion. The 40% approval rate is the lowest on record, Urman says. 

“This would be a great way for the court to boost public confidence in its work — the justices are among federal judges in their refusal to abide by the ethics code that all appeals and trial court judges must follow,” Urman says. 

So what would a code of ethics look like?

Existing code of conduct for federal judges

A fair starting point, Northeastern experts say, is the already existing code of conduct for federal judges. Some experts have argued that the high court is supposed to adhere to financial disclosure laws that already apply to all federal judges. While the laws on the books in theory apply to the Supreme Court, there is no oversight mechanism to ensure accountability. 

Blind trusts for financial investments 

A group of federal lawmakers have pushed for legislation requiring that Supreme Court justices set up blind trusts for assets or financial holdings that may present a conflict of interest during a case. 

“Our bill will require that all financial investments and assets owned by judges do not influence their decisions, and are held in a blind trust,” U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, said this year about a bill that sought to limit judges’ stock trading. 

Experts have touted the solution as a way of avoiding conflicts of interest.

“Sometimes justices have investments without current parties before them, and then a company they are invested in gets involved in a case,” Urman says. “This avoids this.”

A ‘bright line’ on certain conduct

Northeastern experts say there should be a “bright line” of “prohibited conduct,” such as in-kind gifts with parties having connections to cases, lavish vacations, among other types of behavior.  

“We have seen clear examples of what is not acceptable,” Urman says.

Transparency and disclosure 

Travel, including to private retreats, corporate gatherings and other places, ought to be subject to disclosure and transparency laws within a prospective ethics code, these experts say. 

Recusal rules

There should also be clear recusal rules; for example, when family members of companies appear before the court, and a justice has stock in said company, recusal should be compelled. Such rules would also require that justices publicly disclose the basis of their recusal.

“Currently, justices are not required to disclose their reasons, leaving journalists guessing at times,” Urman says.

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on X/Twitter @tstening90.