After months of corruption scandals and plummeting public approval, the Supreme Court released a document on November 13 to correct, in its words, the “misunderstanding” that the justices “regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules.” That’s a narrow, and telling, statement of intent—calm down, everyone, we do have ethics rules! There’s just one small qualification: They don’t prohibit any of the things making you mad at us in the first place.
When Congress made tentative noises about providing minor checks and balances on the court, the justices erupted in outrage, telling Congress to go f* itself
Let’s examine the document. It sets out broad, affirmative standards of behavior, few of which are compulsory. As plenty of critics have noted, the word “should” appears 53 times in the code, but the word “must” appears just six times. Just two of those musts involve specific rules, both about obtaining prior approval before being paid for teaching. Similarly, while the document copies a lot of language from the ethics rules for lower courts, Bloomberg Law noticed that the justices struck the word “enforce” from their provisions about maintaining a high standard of conduct. They also cut a mandate to “take appropriate action” if they get “reliable information” that a fellow justice has violated the guidelines.
But the most important omission isn’t a verb in the formal text. While it bans—or at least discourages—justices from leading, speaking, or donating to “political organizations,” unlike the lower courts, the Supreme Court never defines that term.
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