Justice Amy Coney Barrett welcomes scrutiny of court, shies away from ethics code debate

Justice Amy Coney Barrett shied away Monday from commenting on the debate over imposing an ethics code on the Supreme Court.

“Public scrutiny is welcome,” Justice Barrett said at a judicial conference in Wisconsin. “Increasing and enhancing civics education is welcome.”

The Trump appointee, who joined the court in 2020, didn’t offer her position on whether there should be an ethics code for the court, unlike her colleagues Justices Elena Kagan and Samuel A. Alito Jr. earlier this summer.

Instead, Justice Barrett said news coverage of the court is welcomed when it educates the public, but she bemoaned misinformation.

“To the extent that it engages people in the work of the court and paying attention to the court and knowing what the courts do and what the Constitution has to say, that’s a positive development,” Justice Barrett said. “To the extent that it gives them misimpressions, that’s a negative development.”

Her comments come as a Gallup poll this month showed approval of the Supreme Court is at a record low. Only 40% of respondents said they approved of the job the justices were doing.

The high court has been embroiled in a debate over whether Congress should impose ethics standards on the justices.

Justice Alito said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in July that neither Congress nor the White House is empowered to dictate conditions to the high court and any attempt to do so upsets the balance among the three government branches.

Justice Kagan, meanwhile, said some congressional meddling is necessary so the court does not become immune to checks and balances.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, much like Justice Barrett, avoided the ethics debate during his appearance at a conference in Minnesota last month, according to The Associated Press.

The debate over standards for the high court came roaring to the forefront after a series of articles accused some Republican-appointed justices of taking trips sponsored by wealthy people who may have business before the court.

Liberal activists have drawn broader contours with condemnations of the court‘s landmark rulings on abortion, gun rights and affirmative action, but they have struggled to find an outlet for their anger. 

Calls to pack the court with more members or impose term limits on justices have foundered, leaving activists itching to strike back at Supreme Court members and pinning their hopes on ethics legislation.

In a party-line vote in July, Senate Democrats pushed legislation through the Judiciary Committee last month that would require the court to develop a code of ethics and a system to police the justices’ adherence. The justices would be prodded to better explain their decisions on whether to recuse themselves from hearing certain cases.

Given the close division of power in the Senate and the Republicans’ control of the House, Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, said the Democrats’ bill is “as dead as fried chicken.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, the court‘s longest-serving member, has been the focus of scrutiny after ProPublica reported that billionaire Harlan Crow, a major Republican donor, paid private school tuition at Hidden Lake Academy and Randolph-Macon Academy for Justice Thomas’ great-nephew. Justice Thomas took in the boy to raise from age 6.

The tuition total could have cost more than $150,000, according to ProPublica. Justice Thomas did not disclose the payments in his financial disclosure forms, and the news outlet suggested that he ran afoul of ethical standards required of federal judges on lower courts.

Other reports by ProPublica, The Washington Post and The New York Times questioned arrangements such as generous salaries for Republican-appointed justices to teach at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law.

Justice Thomas defended his friendship with Mr. Crow. He said he consulted with colleagues about disclosure requirements and didn’t skirt any rules. In June, Justice Alito published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal rebutting a forthcoming piece accusing him of ethics violations.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the court generally follows the code of ethics binding on lower courts.

He said all justices must file disclosures for review by the Judicial Conference Committee on Financial Disclosure and follow lower court policies on recusals. He noted that the system is flexible, given the composition of the high court.

He said the justices have faced increased threats and sometimes do not disclose travel arrangements for security reasons.

The chief justice has rebuffed Senate Democrats’ calls to testify to Congress. He said that would upset the balance of power. Instead, he submitted a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee with a statement of ethics principles and practices that the court follows. All nine current members signed it.

That statement laid out rules governing outside income, teaching and recusals. It noted that justices sometimes do not report travel because of security issues.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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