The Supreme Court has faced mounting ethical questions and loss of public faith in recent months—but don’t expect Washington to do anything about it.
Media investigations have revealed anti-abortion activists had a secret campaign to influence justices and that Justice Clarence Thomas has for years accepted luxury trips and failed to report the sale of property to a wealthy Republican donor.
Yet the Supreme Court is not bound by the same guidelines as the executive or legislative branches or even other parts of the judiciary, which just last month revised its regulations to clarify stays at commercial properties and travel by private jet must be reported. A complaint signed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and former chief White House ethics lawyers Norm Eisen and Richard Painter alleges Thomas’ real estate deal violates the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, but there are no indications he will face any repercussions.
It seems unlikely the Supreme Court will cede oversight to another body. With a divided Congress, proposed bills to require justices to adopt a code of ethics are unlikely to pass. And a majority in the House and a supermajority of the Senate are unlikely to coalesce around articles of impeachment for an individual justice, something that has not happened since 1805. As the New York Times editorial board suggested last week, the problem of influence peddling – or at least the perception of such – seems to be an intractable issue with a long and bipartisan history.