Supreme Court ethics

The ethics standards of Supreme Court justices are kept sacrosanct, by the justices themselves. So while all state and federal judges on all the trial and appellate courts of the United States are subject to a code of conduct, only United States Supreme Court justices are not bound by such, or any other ethical standards except for the impeachment process.

Supreme Court justices decide and abide by their own rules, an irony considering the nature of that institution. For example, while most state and some federal courts allow televised proceedings, the Supreme Court forbids them. Asked why, one hostile justice said it was because he didn’t want to be recognized in the supermarket. Another told Congress, “Over my dead body.” Thus, the general public is denied a unique educational vehicle about the making of American law.

Years ago, two iconoclastic Yale Law School denizens criticized the legal profession, the judiciary and the Supreme Court for advancing a pseudo-mysticism about judges, aimed at creating a false image of unapproachable power. In his brilliant books, the late Judge Jerome Frank, and in his memorable law review articles, the late law professor Fred Rodell, each spoofed the need for mumbo-jumbo legalese and anachronistic garb that lawyers and judges use to exalt themselves.

Supreme Court justices granting unto themselves the exclusive right to judge themselves on questions of their own ethics is reminiscent of the Vatican position on misbehavior by its priests. We can see where that got the Catholic Church in recent years. As the Alliance for Justice’s Nan Aron recently noted in The Washington Post, the Supreme Court ruled recently that the West Virginia Supreme Court was held to a high standard of ethics because that was necessary to maintain the integrity of the judges.

Do as I say, not as I do seems to have replaced equal justice under laws as the high court’s motto.


Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington attorney and author.