NYC Bar champions bill to curb lavish gifts to U.S. Supreme Court judges

June 28, 2024 Robert Abruzzese, Courthouse Editor
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has faced scrutiny over undisclosed luxury trips and gifts from billionaire Harlan Crow, sparking ethical concerns and calls for reform. Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP
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The New York City Bar Association has expressed strong support for a newly introduced bill in Congress aimed at limiting lavish gifts to judges and justices of the United States. This legislation is seen as an essential first step in much-needed ethics reform.

A year ago, on Aug. 21, 2023, the City Bar highlighted the urgent need for ethics reform at the Supreme Court. They pointed to disclosures involving certain justices receiving lavish gifts, travel, entertainment, and real estate transactions, which they claimed eroded public confidence in the court. At that time, the City Bar urged the court to voluntarily adopt rigorous ethics standards comparable to those governing other federal judges, incorporating a credible regime of oversight and enforcement.

On November 13, 2023, the Supreme Court issued a Code of Conduct, which the City Bar criticized for being inadequate. The Code merely suggested that justices “should” follow standards required for lower court judges and lacked any enforcement mechanism. The City Bar reiterated that if the Supreme Court did not act, Congress must step in to address the crisis.

In response to the court’s insufficient action, the City Bar now endorses the reform bill before Congress. Although the bill primarily addresses gifts, the City Bar calls for further reforms on ethical standards and recusal processes. It appreciates the initial enforcement mechanism in the bill and pledges that its Task Force on the Rule of Law will soon issue a detailed report on these issues.

The City Bar’s call for ethics reform is rooted in concerns about plummeting public trust in the U.S. Supreme Court. Susan Kohlmann, immediate past president of the New York City Bar Association, noted that confidence in the court is crucial for a functioning democracy. She said that recent disclosures of justices receiving gifts and benefits have raised questions about potential conflicts of interest and the infrequency of recusals.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to adopt a mandatory and enforceable ethics code has further eroded public confidence, the City Bar says. Despite calls for transparency and accountability, the court’s current approach, where each justice decides on their own ethical issues, is deemed untenable. The City Bar insists on a binding ethics code and strengthened standards for financial disclosures and recusals to restore trust in the judicial system.

Senate Bill 359, the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act of 2023, was introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. The bill mandates the Supreme Court to establish a code of conduct, enforce recusal rules, and create procedures for investigating complaints against justices. The City Bar believes this legislation is a reasonable response to the ethical challenges facing the court and calls for its prompt enactment.

According to a ProPublica report published in April 2023, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has accepted undisclosed luxury trips and gifts from real estate magnate Harlan Crow, including vacations on Crow’s private jet and superyacht. This has raised serious ethical concerns, as Thomas had failed to report these gifts, seemingly violating federal disclosure laws and compromising public trust in the Supreme Court. The ProPublica investigation revealing these details has intensified the push for comprehensive ethics reforms at the nation’s highest court.

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