Chief Justice Roberts rejects request for code of conduct

February 21, 2012

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told a group of Democratic senators that the Supreme Court is not going to formally adopt a judicial code of conduct that governs the actions of other federal judges.

Roberts told Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) in a one-paragraph letter that he had already explained in his year-end report on the judiciary why the Code of Conduct for United States Judges was not applicable to the Supreme Court.

Although the justices view the code as the “starting point and a key source of guidance” for themselves, Roberts said in the report, the court has “no reason to adopt the Code of Conduct as its definitive source of ethical guidance.”

In the report, the chief justice had defended his eight colleagues as “jurists of exceptional integrity and experience” and said it was a misconception that they do not follow the same set of ethical principles as other judges.

Members of Congress, a group of law professors and outside groups have called upon the court to adopt the code of conduct. But Roberts said that would not commit the justices to do anything more than they already do and noted that congressional attempts to force the issue would raise separation-of-powers issues.


The U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Leahy and four other Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee sent Roberts a letter this month saying that if the court already abided by the code, why not simply adopt it.

“We hope to increase public trust and confidence in all of our institutions, including the Supreme Court,” wrote Leahy, Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Al Franken (Minn.) . The five said they “do not intend to question or impugn the ethics of any individual Justice” by making the request.

Roberts did release a copy of a 1991 resolution the court adopted in which it said that the justices would abide by the same regulations on gifts and outside income that govern other judges.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.
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