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A Code of Conduct for the Supreme Court? Legal Questions and Considerations

CRS Legal Sidebar: A Code of Conduct for the Supreme Court? Legal Questions and Considerations Updated April 6, 2022:  “The Code of Conduct for United States Judges (the Code) is a set of ethical canons that the Judicial Conference of the United States (Judicial Conference) has adopted to promote public confidence in the integrity, independence, and impartiality of the federal judiciary. The Code governs the behavior of most federal judges; however, it does not explicitly apply to Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the Justices consult the Code, along with other sources, for guidance when performing their judicial duties, the Court is not presently subject to a defined body of general ethical rules. Some observers maintain that “Supreme Court justices should be bound by the same code of ethics that all other federal judges are required to follow. ”To that end, some Members of Congress have introduced legislation that would require the Judicial Conference to “issue a code of conduct[] which applies to each justice” on the Court. While some commentators and legislators have supported ethical rules for the Supreme Court for years, the issue gained increased prominence in March 2022 following reports that Virginia Thomas, wife of Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, sent text messages in January 2021 to then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows encouraging him to contest the result of the 2020 presidential election. In response to those reports, some have debated whether Justice Thomas should recuse himself from certain cases voluntarily, while others have called for broader changes to the Court’s ethical obligations that would bind all the Justices. By contrast, some commentators question whether Congress should—or even could—impose a code of ethics on the Supreme Court. This Sidebar canvasses the relevant legal considerations surrounding proposals to establish a Supreme Court code of conduct. After discussing the existing Code that applies to lower federal judges, the Sidebar describes recent legislative proposals to create a similar code for the Supreme Court, as well as potential constitutional obstacles to those proposals.”

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