Chief Justice John Roberts often responds to critiques of the federal judiciary in his annual year-end report. This year he discussed, albeit unconvincingly, reasons for why the Supreme Court has been slow to adopt modern technologies.
(As one reporter put it, referring to cameras as “the next big thing,” as Roberts more or less does in his report, is like calling Coldplay “the new hot band” – though we’d have preferred a U2 reference, since 1979, the year the band first stepped into the studio, was also the year in which C-SPAN began broadcasting U.S. House sessions. Cameras have been around 100 years – the indefatigable Bono and C-SPAN, for 35 – and none is going anywhere.)
Back in 2011, Roberts’ report focused on calls made earlier in the year by members of Congress and the public to require that the justices adopt the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges. The nine justices are the only federal judges exempt from the code, which establishes basic ethical guidelines for judges on issues from recusals to outside salaries to political activities and generally discusses how they should uphold the integrity of the judiciary and avoid any impropriety or appearances of impropriety.
But there’s a fundamental different between what Roberts writes in 2011 – that all justices “consult the Code of Conduct in assessing their ethical obligations” – and a statutory compulsion to follow the code. That we prefer the justices to be bound to the code does not diminish our respect for the individuals or their offices. Rather, requiring adherence to the code demonstrates a simple, straightforward way for the court to begin to conform to modern expectations of accountability from public officials.
It may, in fact, be both the easiest and most important way.
Fix the Court is calling on Chief Justice Roberts and his colleagues to formally adopt the code of ethics – called the Code of Conduct for United States Judges – that all other federal judges are required to follow. Should they demur, we believe Congress has the authority to compel the justices to adopt the code.