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Supreme scruples


WORLD Radio - Supreme scruples

The Supreme Court releases a code of ethics, but critics aren’t satisfied

Members of the Supreme Court Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite, File

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Ethics and the Supreme Court.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its first formal code of conduct to guide the ethical behavior of its nine justices. This, after a year of pressure from media outlets and some in the legislature about undisclosed hobnobbing with rich people.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: You may remember back in April, Propublica ran an investigation into gifts and travel Justice Clarence Thomas was given by Texas billionaire Harlan Crow. At the time, Democrats like Senator Dick Durbin responded to the news like it was a bombshell.

DURBIN: To restore the integrity and reputation of the court they have to do something. An investigation followed by a change in an approach on ethics.

REICHARD: Over the summer, the Senate investigated the court and asked Chief Justice John Roberts to testify, and he declined, citing the separation of powers.

And now the court has released a 15 page document explaining the ethical guidelines the justices abide by. Happy ending? Not really. Here’s Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, giving his reaction to the news on MSNBC on Tuesday:

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: So this is a first step, but it's not meaningful until and unless they build the process for imposing it on themselves.

BROWN: Joining us now to explain what is and is not in the code of ethics is Carrie Severino. She is president of the Judicial Crisis Network and co-author of the book Justice on Trial: The Kavanaugh Confirmation and the Future of the Court.

REICHARD: Carrie, good morning.

CARRIE SEVERINO, GUEST: Good morning. Great to be here.

REICHARD: Glad you are. Well, what does the new code of conduct actually do?

SEVERINO: Well, you know, the justices I think put it out there to clarify that, unlike what everyone is saying, they do actually have ethical rules they follow. And this is really clarifying and putting out there, these are the ethical standards for when they should recuse, for how they should disclose things for, you know, all of the guidelines they have been following. So you've got them in one place, and I think it's to really put the lie to the people who are saying that justice is like the Wild West, they don't have any ethical guidelines. They absolutely do. And so it's good to have it out there just to make that clear, because you have a lot of people who are trying to attack them, not really because of any actual ethics violations, but because I think they're trying to get the upper hand over the court itself.

REICHARD: We'll talk about that more in a moment. Some may wonder why didn't the Supreme Court already have something like this in place?

SEVERINO: Well, you know, they didn't have it written down, but they did have rules that they followed. And I think it just wasn't necessary to put them all in one place. They are bound by federal law, for example, as to when you do have to recuse from cases. So that's been always the case, they are bound by the same laws in that respect as lower court judges. But I guess when the lower courts adopted their code of conduct, the Supreme Court didn't do so partly, because I think they recognize that, as there is no higher court they can appeal to, it is sort of difficult to say, well, here's this code of conduct, but we're holding ourselves to it, because that's the only possible way we can do it. So I think that's just the nature of the beast here with having a Supreme Court. And if they are supreme, that means they have to be the ones who are able to police these conduct.

REICHARD: Well, I know early on, there were many voices on Capitol Hill and the media who were saying that the news of justice Clarence's undisclosed gifts and trips undermined the reputation of the entire court and up till now, it seemed like the justices were planning to just weather the storm, ignore the media rabble rousing over this, but now that they've acquiesced and released this code of ethics, does that signal to you that the justices are concerned about the court's reputation?

SEVERINO: You know, I think you can see that what has been happening here is people from clearly political motives. I mean, this has been led by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who is a longtime foe of the Supreme Court. He's been trying to drag the court's reputation through the mud really here. And I think the idea that behind the justices is, let's at least diffuse some of the claims. Like for example, saying, well, they have no ethics, okay? They have had these guidelines, but let's make them explicit, let's make them clear, so people can't be led astray by the misconceptions that are being intentionally fomented. So yes, their reputation has taken a hit, but it's because there are people who are spreading lies and misinformation about how the court really works. I think if people understood how it really worked, they would not be as easily led astray by people like Senator Whitehouse.

REICHARD: I didn’t read any criticism of the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she presided over same sex wedding ceremonies BEFORE the Obergefell decision in 2015 legalizing those arrangements. Is this a capitulation to partisan media pressure? How would you respond?

SEVERINO: Yeah, well, first, it's very clear that this is the right time for this to come out for the left, because if anyone took a huge number of, you know, trips, and things that are much more concerning than anything Justice Thomas has done with people with no business before the Court, Justice Ginsburg was regularly receiving awards and, and receiving trips and things from people who did have business before the court. I think the reason they're looking at it now is because she's off the court. But even in her case, I don't think there ever was any actual corruption going on. So I think that is the elephant in the room that everyone knows. There isn't any actual instances of corruption happening here. And I think, that's the big secret. I think that the left wants to be able to bully the court into what they're doing. I hope this doesn't mean the court is feeling bullied. I hope this is just them saying, look for the people of goodwill out there, they should know there are clear ethical standards. But look, you're never going to be able to please Sheldon Whitehouse you're never gonna be able to please the Liberal Democrats who will not stop until they either have a veto power over which originalist justices sit on the court or whether they were until they can pack the court with people who will simply vote in terms of their political agenda.

REICHARD: Carrie Severino is president of Judicial Crisis Network. Thanks so much for your time today! Really appreciate it.

SEVERINO: Thanks, great to be here.

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