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Nancy Smith

What? Accountability for U.S. Supreme Court Justices ... Finally?

April 22, 2015 - 6:00pm

There's always a way around an ethics law, as a couple of slippery moves in the Florida Senate have shown. But that doesn't mean you give up on accountability, or hand any government body a free pass -- even the highest court in the land.

Especially the highest court in the land.

The questionable activities of some of our Supreme Court justices have been well documented -- participating in political functions, failing to report family income from political groups, and attending fundraisers. Why should these men and women -- eminences though they are -- be the only federal judges exempt from a code of conduct?

So it was heartening Thursday to see lawmakers in Washington reintroduce bills that would direct U.S. Supreme Court justices to adopt the same binding code of ethics used by all other federal judges.

The Supreme Court Ethics Act would require the Supreme Court to adopt a code of the ethics within 180 days. The nine justices are currently exempt from the code of conduct U.S. judges follow to ensure neutrality and transparency in the nations courts.

I've been following the work of Fix the Court, a national, nonpartisan grassroots organization that exists only "to take the Supreme Court to task for its lack of accountability and transparency and to push Chief Justice John Roberts and the courts eight associate justices to enact basic yet critical reforms to make the court more open."To date -- largely thanks to Fix the Court, more than 130,000 Americans have signed a petition asking Roberts to adopt a code of ethics for the high court.

A similar bill was first introduced in 1973. Then, in 2012, 212 legal scholars sent Roberts a letter urging him to adopt a code of conduct for U.S. judges.

There is absolutely no reason why Supreme Court justices shouldnt be subject to the same code of conduct as all other federal judges, said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., in a news release. The American people deserve to know that our highest court is held to the highest ethical standards, which is why we introduced the Supreme Court Ethics Act.

Besides rounding up signatures, what Fix the Court does is educate Americans. Certainly, it's educated me about problems plaguing the court. It is building a movement of conservatives, independents and progressives demanding change with a common voice.

And that's what I like.No single political party can be blamed for ganging up on the Supremes. The Supreme Court Ethics Act is an entirely bipartisan product, introduced in the Senate by Murphy and in the House by Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.

Its surprising that our countrys most powerful interpreters of law have refused to adhere to the ethics code that guides the rest of the federal judiciary, said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court. Enacting a binding code of conduct would compel the justices to create uniformity around thorny issues like recusals and participation in political activities and would bring them closer to the publics expectations of accountability from government officials.

Fix the Court research shows that while none of the justices has committed a removal offense, all nine of them are guilty of various ethical oversights, "from leaving assets off their annual financial disclosure reports to speaking at partisan fundraisers to ruling on cases despite credible conflicts of interest."

In 2011 Chief Justice Roberts attempted to address criticism about the courts failure to adopt the Code of Conduct by explaining that the justices certainly do consult the code -- yet, in the years since, they have made no attempt to join all other federal judges and officially adhere to it.

Two years ago Justice Anthony Kennedy responded to a congressmans question about why the justices were not bound to the code by saying, Its potentially difficult for circuit judges to make rules meaning, the very same Code of Conduct which lower federal court judges abide by, that are binding on us, the nine Supreme Court justices.

Supreme Court justices do what they like. They could easily and formally adopt the code tomorrow if they wanted to. But they don't. Because Congress determines how many justices sit on the Supreme Court and what they are paid, creating a code of conduct is part of what they do. I didn't make that up:Legal scholars believe Congress has a perfect right to legislate institutional changes to the high court, hold a gun to its head by using its "statutory authority to compel justices" to do the right thing.

Which is what these bills are all about. And Roth made my point perfectly Thursday after they were introduced

Ethics is not a partisan issue, and todays push is an ideal opportunity for members of Congress of both parties to unite under the banner of ethics reform, he said. Leaders of both the House and the Senate Judiciary Committees should back todays proposals, put a hearing on the calendar and hold a committee vote soon after.

Amen, amen and amen.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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