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Ethics in the Judiciary: May 2020 Update

No SCOTUS grants today, but below are some updates on several ethics issues we’ve been tracking:

Federal judges participate(d) in a fundraiser. Sixth Circuit Judge Ray Kethledge, an E.D. Michigan judge and a magistrate were auctioning off personal meetings this spring for a University of Michigan Law School fundraiser. The good cause notwithstanding, it’s not difficult to see the ethics concerns here. We reached out to both the law students and the Sixth Circuit in March, pointing out that the Code of Conduct prohibits judges from fundraising (p. 14), and the students responded on May 18, returning the money to the bidders and promising the judges would have no further involvement. More information here.

Gorsuch a registered Republican. You may recall that FTC looked into the justices’ voter registrations at the start of the year. After seeing reporting last week that Secretary of State Pompeo’s “Madison Dinners” skewed heavily conservative, and noting that Justices Alito and Gorusch were invited, we rechecked their voter registrations and found that Gorsuch is a registered Republican. The genial Coloradan joins Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan as registered partisans on the high court, which we believe is a bad look for a supposedly nonpartisan institution. What’s more, Gorsuch’s Republican ballot for Maryland’s closed June 2 primary is being mailed to the Supreme Court as we speak.

Financial disclosures coming. As in non-pandemic years, financial disclosure reports for federal judges and Supreme Court justices were due to the Administrative Office on May 15. We expect them to be mailed to those who’ve requested them, including us, on June 11, and we’ll provide analysis once the reports are in hand. Something we’ll be looking out for: the Supreme Court in March told us that Justices Thomas and Sotomayor will be amending their 2018 and 2016 reports, respectively, to include reimbursements that our research had uncovered.

Why no judicial STOCK Act? Questions continue to swirl around the members of Congress illicitly trading stocks based on insider COVID-19 information. Recall that members of the third branch are not covered by the law, which prohibits federal lawmakers and executive branch officials from insider trading and requires them to publicly list their securities transactions within 45 days. It’s high time we rectified that oversight, especially considering that Rep. Slaughter made a direct connection between the STOCK Act and her Supreme Court Ethics Act almost a decade ago.

Another thing other branches have that the courts don’t (and that’s back in the news): inspectors general. There was talk of a bill being introduced on this ahead of the pandemic, but like so much else, that moment has been superseded.

JCUS Codes of Conduct Committee draft advisory opinion. The 120-day comment period for a new advisory opinion that would bar federal judges from membership in, but not from speaking at or attending events of, the conservative Federalist Society or liberal American Constitution Society has ended. FTC contributed a comment 111 days ago in support of the opinion and its aspiration of depoliticizing the judiciary.

Actor appears on camera in court. Lori Loughlin pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud in federal court Friday. While the hearing was accessible to the public via Zoom, the video was not archived, meaning that interested members of the media or public were not able to access the video recording after the hearing concluded. That would be fixed by the FTC-backed Court Access Amid the Pandemic Act, introduced by Rep. Mike Quigley in April, which requires both a livestream and that video be archived on the court’s website.

Tell Your Members of Congress: Require the Supreme Court to Follow a Code of Conduct

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