Journalists – at least the ones you can trust – follow a code of ethics. They don’t accept gifts from people and organizations they report on.

The reason should be obvious. Gifts may influence, consciously or not, how the journalist approaches a subject; even if they don’t, they could make a reader question the validity of an article.

So journalists and news organizations take great pains to avoid even the hint of a conflict of interest – and when one may be present, they inform their readers.

The Supreme Court of the United States, however, has few rules governing its acceptance of gifts, and some justices still have trouble following those, even as their behavior chips away at the court’s integrity.

When trust in the very foundation of our legal and political system is at stake, this is no way for impartial judges to act. The justices could go a long way toward restoring trust in the court by instituting their own code of ethics; every other judge in the United States already operates under one, as do members of Congress and federal employees.

It’s astounding that the justices, who are often the final word on some of our country’s most consequential questions, have so few restrictions on how they can interact with the people who have business before the court.


Even worse is that at least some of the justices see no problem with taking gifts worth tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars from people who desperately want them to vote in their favor, and believe that no one outside the court has any right to question their actions.

There is no soft way of saying it: The Supreme Court’s ethics are deeply compromised, and it is getting harder with each report of impropriety to have any faith in its decisions.

The latest came last week, as The Guardian reported that an aide to Justice Clarence Thomas had received payments in late 2019 from several lawyers who would soon try cases before the Supreme Court, including Patrick Strawbridge, an attorney from North Yarmouth who would go on to lead the case that ended affirmative action.

There are innocent explanations for such payments, but Thomas and the lawyers involved have not responded to questions. The public is owed an explanation, and Thomas, who has a history of accepting and hiding gifts from people who want the court to vote a certain way, has not earned the benefit of the doubt. Back in May, ProPublica reported that billionaire conservative Harlan Crow gave Thomas gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, including luxury vacations every year for a decade.

Another billionaire, Leonard Leo, who has made it his mission to make the court more conservative, reportedly funneled money to Thomas’ wife, a longtime far-right activist, and took steps to hide it.

And yet another billionaire conservative with repeated business before the court took Justice Samuel Alito on a luxury fishing vacation in 2008, ProPublica reported last month.


Alito didn’t disclose the trip, just as Thomas didn’t disclose the many expensive gifts he received. Both justices say their cozy relationships with political donors were appropriate, even though it’s clear they took steps to hide them.

It’s not just those two conservatives showing a lapse in ethics. Justice Sonia Sotomayor used her taxpayer-funded staff to help sell her children’s book – illegal for other branches of government, but not, apparently, for members of the Supreme Court.

It’s the gifts, still, that are the greatest threat to the court’s integrity. How can Americans honor the court’s decisions if it looks like the scales of justice are being tipped one way by billionaires who have access to justices?

The justices have shown no desire to hold themselves accountable, so Congress must do it for them. The Senate Judiciary Committee is moving forward with legislation that would force the court to adopt a code of conduct for itself, and to impose the same disclosure standards as Congress.

We ask that Maine Sens. Angus King – who put forward his own ethics reform bill this year – and Susan Collins support this effort.

Ethics reform would give the Supreme Court a chance to earn back its legitimacy – as long as the justices want to.

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