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The Supreme Court has adopted its first code of ethics

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The Supreme Court has adopted its first code of ethics. All nine Supreme Court justices signed on to the self-imposed code seven months after the public learned that two justices had accepted lavish gifts from Republican donors. But compliance with the code is essentially voluntary. It doesn't have an enforcement mechanism. So is it enough to regain the public's trust? Amanda Frost has been following this. She's a law professor at the University of Virginia who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Supreme Court ethics. So, professor, considering it's all voluntary, does this change anything for the justices?

AMANDA FROST: Yes. I think on the one hand, it's a step in the right direction. The court responded to public pressure. All nine put into writing the ethical code that they now say they will follow. And I think that does suggest that they are taking these concerns seriously and that the public pressure has made some difference. But I'm also concerned by the lack of an enforcement mechanism and by the suggestion in the opening statement to this code that it's all been a misunderstanding, and they've been following these rules all along, which just isn't true.

MARTÍNEZ: So that lack of an enforcement mechanism - what kind of oversight would you suggest, would you propose?

FROST: Yes, so ideally, Congress would take action and enact legislation that would put in place mechanisms for oversight, perhaps something like an inspector general for the Article 3 for the judicial branch of our government which could oversee the justices, the lower courts and personnel. Or the code of conduct and an enforcement mechanism such as already exists for the lower federal courts would be another option.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, to be clear, professor, politically, maybe it might be delicate for the current Congress to pass ethics legislation for the court, but they can, right? I mean, they absolutely can if they want to. Nothing else is stopping them.

FROST: Oh, yes. Congress has constitutional authority to regulate the court. Of course, it must maintain the court's decisional independence. But that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about regulating the conduct and the ethics of the justices, which is what Congress has done for centuries. It requires the court members to take an oath of office in which they promise to be impartial. It oversees their budget. It sets the size of the court and the quorum and the dates they meet. And this is the role that the Constitution intended for Congress to play.

MARTÍNEZ: But if I say, well, you know, professor, aren't they a separate government body? I thought that one doesn't tread on the other.

FROST: Yes, I mean, separation of powers is important, but we also have a system in our Constitution of checks and balances. And no branch of government was intended to operate entirely unaccountable and unresponsive to the others or to the public. In fact, that's the beauty of our democracy and our constitutional system. And the court has never operated entirely free from Congress's regulation. And I think the problem recently has been the court seems to take the view that it is above all supervision and oversight. And I'm glad to see this small step in favor of the court acknowledging that, indeed, the public should expect more than what the court has done in the past.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, according to Gallup, most Americans today do not approve of how the court is doing its job. So do you think this new code of ethics could maybe change that?

FROST: You know, I hope so because we need a strong court. We need a judiciary which the public has faith in and trusts. And I have been concerned when I've seen the erosion of that trust. So I would hope that maybe this code of conduct but also future adherence to this code would help restore public faith in the court.

MARTÍNEZ: Amanda Frost is a law professor at the University of Virginia. Thank you very much, professor.

FROST: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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