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House Appropriations Committee to Federal Judiciary: Clean up the Mess

By Dylan Hosmer-Quint, FTC research associate

The House Appropriations Committee is advocating for a Supreme Court ethics code and for improvements to the Judiciary’s workplace conduct policies in a report accompanying the judiciary’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget allotment.

In the report, the committee urges (p. 45) “the Supreme Court to adopt a Code of Conduct applicable for the Justices” and asks that the Supreme Court brief them on such a proposal within 60 days of the enactment of the appropriation’s bill.

Two pages later, (p. 47), the committee writes that it is “disappointed with the recent findings of workplace misconduct in the judiciary” and asks the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts to submit a report detailing the frequency of harassment complaints, the types of assistance available to victims and the actions of newly formed Office of Judicial Integrity (which, to date, has a single employee) to improve workplace conduct via training and intervention programs.

FTC applauds the Appropriations Committee for these recommendations, and if the judiciary continues its pattern of inaction, we urge Congress to enact the recommendations.

The inclusions come amid growing public mistrust of the Supreme Court and revelations of rampant misconduct in the federal judiciary.

Supreme Court justices are, notably, the only federal judges not subject to a code of conduct (district and circuit judges, for example, are subject to the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges). The nine justices also face fewer ethics regulations than top officials in Congress or the Executive Branch. Creating a code of conduct for Supreme Court justices would help restore public trust in the institution by ensuring justices’ are held accountable to basic standards of workplace and professional conduct.

Misconduct has long plagued the judiciary, and in recent years, numerous high-profile cases of misconduct have been exposed but have largely gone unaddressed. What typically happens is that these judges are allowed to retire, effectively ending investigation into wrongdoing and ensuring that they receive a pension for life.

Former judges like Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit and Maryanne Trump Barry of the Third Circuit were accused of serial harassment and tax fraud, respectively. Rather than face the investigation, they both retired and continue to receive $200,000 a year on the taxpayer’s dime.

The problem goes far beyond judges; a suit is currently pending against a federal defender in North Carolina who harassed a subordinate for months. Despite the employee’s efforts to report the misconduct, the judiciary did nothing.

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