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Veteran U.S. judge joins calls for Supreme Court ethics code

Reggie B. Walton of D.C. said the absence of a conduct code was ‘unimaginable’

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A prominent Republican-appointed federal judge on Thursday joined calls for Supreme Court justices to be subject to an ethics code, saying a failure by judges to police their own misconduct lessens Americans’ respect for the judiciary.

Senior U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton of D.C. told attendees of a conference in Chicago focused on threats to the independence of the courts that it was “unimaginable that we have a segment of our federal judiciary that’s not subject to an ethics code,” Reuters reported.

Walton, appointed in 2001 by President George W. Bush, acknowledged his comments might be considered “heresy,” but he was concerned that inaction by judges could be in part responsible for congressional legislation on the judiciary that he worried could affect its independence, the news service said.

“We’ve had some judges who’ve been engaged in atrocious behavior, sexual assault, sexual intimidation and other misconduct,” Walton said, according to Reuters. “And many times we haven’t been proactive in punishing them and sanctioning them for what they’ve done.”

In an interview Friday, Walton acknowledged the remarks, saying, “Obviously when those things occur and judges aren’t held accountable, it does affect the respect for the judiciary.”

Walton, a former presiding judge on the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court appointed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., said Supreme Court justices should be subject to a code of conduct like all other federal and state judges.

“As a court system — federal, state and otherwise — we are under scrutiny and under attack. And I think there’s an attempt by some to undermine our independence. And because of that I think all judges should be subject to a code of ethics,” Walton said in his interview.

Walton said he understood from Thursday’s conference, hosted by the National Judicial College, that the Supreme Court is considering such a code, “and I think that’s a good thing.”

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The Supreme Court did not respond to a request for comment.

A recording of the panel was not immediately available, conference officials said, and Walton said he did not speak from prepared remarks.

The conference came at a turbulent time for the judiciary, as President Biden signed legislation this month requiring greater disclosure of judges’ potential financial conflicts, and the House Judiciary Committee advanced a bill to require the Supreme Court to adopt an ethics code.

In March, many legal ethicists expressed shock at revelations that Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, married to Justice Clarence Thomas, repeatedly texted White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to pursue overturning the 2020 presidential election as President Donald Trump simultaneously threatened to challenge the results at the Supreme Court.

Early this month, a deeply polarized Supreme Court vowed to launch a leak investigation after a draft opinion that would overturn the right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade sent shock waves through the national political landscape.

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Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s justices and others have resisted calls from advocates and lawmakers for independent oversight of matters such as anti-discrimination protections for the judiciary’s more than 30,000 employees nationwide, who lack the same rights as other government and private sector workers.

Ever since Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in California retired in 2017 amid allegations of workplace sexual misconduct, leaders of the federal judiciary including the chief justice have sought to encourage reporting and eliminate barriers to holding court officials accountable for workplace gender discrimination, bullying and racial insensitivity. But they have admitted there is more to be done.

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Walton said that he was not thinking of the Thomases at all in his remarks, and that the incidents of misconduct to which he alluded involved lower court judges at the federal and state level, not the Supreme Court.

Instead, he said he was describing a judicial system “under attack” as a speaker on a conference panel titled “Democracy and the Courts,” which focused on forces trying to politicize the courts and reduce their independence, including steps by state legislators or executive branch members to cut judicial budgets or to intimidate, remove or retaliate against judges for decisions they did not like.

Walton said, “I made those comments because I felt they were appropriate in order for the courts to ward off any attempts to undermine our independence or the credibility of our institutions.”