Feeney’s Focus: Self-Enforcement is a Joke 

Members of the Supreme Court sit for a group portrait. Bottom row, from left, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito, and Justice Elena Kagan. Top row, from left, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Justice Neil Gorsuch, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Compared to Congress and the Presidency, the Supreme Court has long enjoyed its status as the most respected of the three branches within the American government. For most of the 21st century, it has enjoyed roughly majority American approval. However, over the past few years, public trust in the Supreme Court has decreased. 

From stripping away reproductive rights in the Dobbs decision to striking down affirmative action this year, the court has garnered intense disapproval. But it’s not just that they took away rights; some of the corruption from the Justices is just comical. 

Take Clarence Thomas. He is the longest-serving Supreme Court Justice on the bench, having been on since 1991. His wife, Ginni Thomas, has been a conservative activist within Washington, D.C. for decades. In the aftermath of former President Trump’s election defeat and the eventual attempt to overturn the results on Jan. 6, Ginni Thomas sent at least 29 text messages to White House Chief of Staff  Mark Meadows to pressure him into negating the election results. 

While his wife was actively working on overturning the election results, Clarence Thomas ruled on those very same results. In January 2022, there was a decision regarding whether or not Trump administration officials had to hand over White House Records regarding the Capitol riot to the Jan. 6 committee. Included in these records were the texts that Ginni Thomas sent to Meadows. In an 8-1 opinion, the Court agreed that those records had to be given to the committee. 

Who was the lone justice to say those records should not be turned over? You guessed it, Clarence Thomas. Richard Painter, ethics counsel for the Bush White House, said “The subpoena of documents when his wife’s own texts are among the pile of documents responsive to the subpoena — that’s a slam dunk. He had to recuse. He didn’t. I’d want to know why.” 

But Thomas’s corruption is not just confined to matters regarding his wife. It’s no secret that elected officials can typically receive some expensive gifts. When they receive these kinds of gifts, they have to disclose them. Typically, Justices have to admit any donation over $415. Earlier this year, ProPublica exposed years of undisclosed gifts that Thomas received from billionaire Harlan Crow—from all-expenses-paid vacations, private flights and even houses for his family.  

Thomas is one of many justices with an uninspiring record regarding financial disclosures. Not only did Justice Samuel Alito not disclose a fishing trip at a lodge that charged $1,000 a night, he took this trip with hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer. His negligence in revealing this is already disgraceful. Here’s the worst part: In the years after the trip, Singer’s hedge fund appeared ten times in front of the court. Alito never recused himself from any of those cases. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was revealed to have her staff pressure universities to buy up to hundreds of copies of her books during promotional visits. Her publisher, Penguin Random House, also organized these talks at universities. Yet, when Penguin Random House had cases in front of the court, Sotomayor did not recuse herself. 

In a healthy and functioning democracy, these blatant acts of judicial corruption would be investigated, and the Justices would be held accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, we live in the United States. The Supreme Court has long stood by a policy of self-regulation for ethics. On Monday, that changed. For the first time in its history, the Supreme Court released its first-ever code of conduct for justices. But this code of conduct is all bark, no bite. 

This new code of conduct has no meaningful enforcement mechanism should the Justices violate it. According to Gabe Roth, leader of Fix the Court, an advocacy group pushing for greater transparency from the Supreme Court, “If the nine are going to release an ethics code with no enforcement mechanism and remain the only police of the nine, then how can the public trust they’re going to do anything more than simply cover for one another, ethics be damned?”  

These nine on the bench are some of the most influential people in the country. Over the past few years, The Supreme Court has frequently been a more direct dictator of American public policy than Congress and the President. These people deserve the highest level of public and private scrutiny. They should not be able to be bought; if they break ethical rules, they should face accountability. 

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