Prof. John Greabe: U.S. Supreme Court Is a ‘Troubled Institution,’ Should Adopt a Code of Ethics

Friday, August 25, 2023

The U.S. Supreme Court should adopt a code of ethics, Prof. John Greabe said during a recent current-events discussion with members of the Temple Adath Yeshurun in Manchester.  Not doing so, he said, would amount to a “self-inflicted wound.”  

 The issue of ethics has been intensely debated since ProPublica reported that neither Justices Clarence Thomas nor Samuel Alito disclosed lavish gifts from billionaires.  Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorscuh have also come under scrutiny for not recusing themselves from cases involving the publisher of their books. The Supreme Court, unlike all other courts within the judicial system, does not work under an ethics code or a judicial code of conduct, said Greabe, who worked for 17 years for the federal judiciary.  

U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court (Photo credit: USDA). 

The Court does comply with federal laws requiring disclosures in certain circumstances, he said, but some conspicuous noncompliance among justices suggests they do not consider themselves bound by these laws. Congress does have the power to impeach and remove justices for high crimes and misdemeanors, but it has impeached only one Supreme Court Justice – in 1804—and has never removed one.

 Although in 2019 Justice Elena Kagan suggested a code of ethics might be in the works, that hasn’t come to pass, Greabe said. Recently, Justice Samuel Alito suggested that any attempt to regulate the Court’s behavior would be deemed unconstitutional.  He and others on the Court, Greabe said, likely would view such a measure as violating our separation of powers. 

 A Senate bill establishing a judicial code of conduct that would apply to the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly passed a committee vote but will almost certainly stall under current political realities, he said. Republicans have opposed the bill, calling it an effort to delegitimize the court even as they have criticized Justice Sotomayor for her alleged ethical lapses.

Meanwhile, the Court’s plummeting approval ratings suggest it might benefit from some type of reform. Ultimately, Greabe said, the Court must conduct itself as a principled institution if it wants its rulings to be accepted as “law” rather than mere power politics in action. “The court is a troubled institution right now,” he said.