Supreme Court Scandal Involves Many Justices

The Supreme Court has been taking a lot of heat recently after a report in ProPublica unveiled that conservative Justice Clarence Thomas has accepted many gifts of luxurious vacations from Harlan Crow, a billionaire who is a big donor to the Republican Party.

Thomas never disclosed those trips before, but he defended himself this week, saying the “personal hospitality from close personal friends” is OK for justices because Crow “did not have business before the court.”

But, in the days following those comments, Bloomberg reported that the high court briefly considered a copyright dispute that involved a business that Crow owned a part of. The $25 million case was brought before the Supreme Court for consideration in 2005.

Bloomberg reported that, by that time, Crow had made numerous gifts to Thomas already, which included a Bible worth $19,000 that at one time was Frederick Douglass’.

It’s not just Thomas who could be in hot water over situations like this, though. Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch also could’ve violated an unwritten rule that states the justices should be careful any time the high court is dealing with entities or people who have business before them.

A recent Politico report revealed that Gorsuch owned land with two other people, and that land was up for sale for almost two years before a buyer was ultimately found. That happened just nine days after Gorsuch was officially confirmed to the Supreme Court.

The person who bought the land was a chief executive for the law firm of Greenberg Traurig. That firm is quite large in size and routinely has matters that appear before the Supreme Court.

Politico reported that “such a sale would raise ethical problems for officials serving in many other branches of government.” Yet, the Supreme Court has relatively lax rules when it comes to ethical issues.

There is a federal statute in place that forces every federal judge – which includes all justices on the Supreme Court – to recuse themselves from a case “in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” The issue, though, is that there isn’t an effective mechanism in place to enforce the statute to a justice on the high court.

Other federal judges at lower levels of the court system have to comply with the Code of Conduct for United States Judges. The nine justices on the Supreme Court, though, aren’t bound by this code. 

John Roberts, the chief justice on the high court, has said in the past that all the justices “consult the Code of Conduct in assessing their ethical obligations.” Many people would tend to disagree with that statement, though, considering the recently-revealed actions of Thomas and Gorsuch.

Some senators recently introduced a new bill that would require the Supreme Court to draw up, and abide by, a code of conduct for themselves, as well as appoint a person who would investigate any claims of violations.

Whether that bill passes, and whether the justices will have to abide by a code of conduct in the future, remains to be seen.