While we have left-leaning judges and right-leaning judges, Americans expect all judges to adhere to strict ethical standards. That would be especially true of justices who sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the land. Yet, the nine justices of the Supreme Court are the only judges in the country who are not bound by a written code of ethics.
Chief Justice John Roberts has asserted that there is “no reason” to adopt a Supreme Court ethics code because members of his court consult a wide variety of other sources for guidance. But recent revelations and events are proving him wrong.
The 25-Year Crusade to Overturn Roe v. Wade
In 1996, Rev. Rob Schenck founded Faith and Action, an ecumenical outreach ministry “to top-level government officials located in Washington, DC, throughout the United States and around the world…They seek to base their outreach on a personal relationship with the person targeted.”
According to Rev. Schenck, Faith and Action aims to “win the hearts and minds of those who make public policy.” Its mission is to reintroduce the Word of God into the public debate surrounding legislation and policy matters.” It is a leader in the anti-abortion movement. Although it targets elected officials, government employees, Supreme Court justices and clerks, and other government personnel, it is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization.
As the leader of Faith and Action, Rev. Schenck was an effective, pro-life lobbyist working to influence members of the Supreme Court, especially Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas. Raising over $30 million, he recruited wealthy donors and encouraged “them to invite the justices to meals, to their vacation homes or to private clubs. He advised allies to contribute money to the Supreme Court Historical Society and then mingle with justices at its functions. He ingratiated himself with court officials who could help give him access.”
Mr. Schenck said “his aim was not to change minds, but rather to stiffen the resolve of the court’s conservatives in taking uncompromising stances that could eventually lead to a reversal of Roe.” Apparently, he succeeded. In the Court’s recent Dobbs case overruling Roe v. Wade, Chief Justice Roberts tried unsuccessfully to limit but still save the constitutional right to abortion. The five justices to his right refused to accept Roberts’ compromise.
Court Leaks Raise Serious Ethical Issues
The fact that the pending Dobbs decision was leaked in advance raises additional ethical concerns. As noted by Newsweek, the leaking of the draft opinion with the names of the five conservative justices who had already signed on to it “made it nearly impossible for any of those five justices to change their minds.”
It was clearly in the interest of Justice Alito, the author of the hardline Dobbs decision, to make certain that none of his fellow conservatives had a change of heart. In fact, there was a similar advanced leak of the Hobby Lobby ruling that requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance covering contraception violated their religious freedoms.
That 5-4 majority opinion which adversely affected the Affordable Care Act was also written by Alito in 2014. Rev. Schenck received the advance notice of the decision from a major donor who had had dinner with Justice Alito the previous night. He “used that information to prepare a public relations push“ that promoted his religious right organization.
The Urgent Need for Reforming the Court
It’s bad enough that we have a Supreme Court heavily titled to the right. Now, on top of that, at least one justice appears to be very ethically compromised. In addition, Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice, has called for an ethics probe into right-wing Justice Clarence Thomas’s alleged conflicts of interest in cases involving efforts to overturn the 2020 election in which his wife, Ginni, participated.
Fallon thinks the Senate Judiciary Committee “should immediately move to investigate the apparent leak by Justice Alito.” He believes that “Structural reform of the court, including strict new ethics rules, is needed now more than ever.”
We cannot let this go. A thorough public investigation by Congress is required, and, possibly, impeachment proceedings. Call your senators and representatives. Demand action.
A retired, public sector ethics attorney, Berlin is the author of Breaking Big Money’s Grip on America (See breakingbigmoneysgrip.com.), the founder of New Mexicans for Money Out of Politics, a former U.S. Institute of Peace fellow, and the founder and former executive director of The Trinity Forum for International Security and Conflict Resolution. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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