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The Supreme Court keeps reminding us it doesn’t have a real ethics code

Yet another report has spotlighted the court’s lack of binding ethical standards. This time, attention is on Chief Justice John Roberts.


The Supreme Court can’t stop reminding us that it doesn’t have a real ethics code and doesn’t care.

This time, it’s Chief Justice John Roberts who’s the subject of the latest dispatch on our esteemed tribunal. According to The New York Times, a former colleague of his wife’s has raised concerns about her work as a legal recruiter, namely that it “poses potential ethics issues for the chief justice.”

 Tuesday’s report explains:

Seeking an inquiry, the ex-colleague has provided records to the Justice Department and Congress indicating Mrs. Roberts has been paid millions of dollars in commissions for placing lawyers at firms — some of which have business before the Supreme Court, according to a letter obtained by The New York Times.

In Roberts’ annual financial disclosure, he listed his wife’s employers but not her clients or commissions, the Times reported. 

To be sure, this latest story doesn’t approach the scandalous level of the Times’ November report on the religious right’s infiltration campaign at the court and the alleged leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s 2014 Hobby Lobby opinion — which, by the way, like the Dobbs leak, still hasn’t been resolved. But it shows why the public deserves more robust financial disclosures and that one of the reasons the court should have its own, binding ethics code is to provide more clarity and public confidence in situations like these.

The Times reported that a Supreme Court spokesperson said Roberts and his wife had “consulted” the judicial code of conduct — which only binds lower federal judges — including a 2009 advisory opinion that says recusal isn’t necessary “merely because” a spouse worked as a recruiter for a firm with issues before the court. That may well be true, but it would be better to have clearer guidance for the justices that they can not only “consult” but also be bound by in some way. 

Gabe Roth of watchdog group Fix the Court pointed out that Roberts’ consultation was inadequate.

“Reviewing SCOTUS-specific ethical canons and speaking with an in-house ombudsman — if only both had existed — would be the right and respectable course of action,” Roth said in a statement after Tuesday’s report. His group has pushed for judges and justices to disclose entities from which judicial spouses earn $5,000-plus for legal, consulting or related work in a given year.

As Roth noted, we don’t know whether ethical rules were violated in this case, because “there effectively are no rules.”