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Board Tosses Ethics Complaint Against Three Tennessee Justices

TennesseeA Tennessee board that weighs complaints of judicial ethics violations has dismissed a complaint against three state Supreme Court justices filed by a blogger.

Tom Humphrey of the Knoxville News Sentinel reported that the state Board of Judicial Conduct dismissed the complaints brought by George Scoville, according to a copy of a letter from the Board that Scoville posted at his website.

The three justices are seeking retention in an August election and have been targeted by critics (see Gavel Grab). Scoville contended that Justices Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee and Chief Justice Gary Wade violated the ethics code provision that bars judges from endorsing political candidates. In the justices’ joint campaigning they had effectively endorsed each other inappropriately, he said. Read more

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Supreme Court Faces Pressure to Become More Transparent

After a dramatic finale in which the Supreme Court released several high-profile rulings, it is facing renewed pressure to become more transparent in its proceedings, according to a lengthy USA Today article.

“There have been baby steps taken to make the court more transparent, but it is still in many respects the least transparent branch of the three branches of government,”  Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, told the newspaper.

But Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. has firmly disagreed.  “We are the most transparent branch of the government,” he said in 2011 (see Gavel Grab).

Leading proposals from lawmakers and watchdog groups include letting cameras in the courtroom, permitting a live audio broadcast of court proceedings, and formally adopting an ethics code (Gavel Grab has background).

Reporter Richard Wolf wrote that the court is not likely to change its procedures immediately, but the demands “could eventually help loosen up an institution that guards its privacy and autonomy.” Read more

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Bill Reignites the Debate About Ethics on the Supreme Court

Two years ago, several Congressional Democrats proposed legislation that would apply the ethics code used by federal judges to the U.S. Supreme Court. At the time, the bill got mired down in partisan controversy and failed to gain traction. 

Last Thursday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) reintroduced the legislation which, rather than creating an ethics code for the court, encourages it to write its own. The current Chief Justice of the court, John Roberts has so far resisted efforts to impose a code of ethics on the court, saying that the justices already consult the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.

However, in an opinion for Politico, law professors Charles Geyh and Stephen Gillers of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law and New York University School of Law, respectively, encourage both Congress and the Supreme Court to give the bill serious consideration. They argue that the bill should not be interpreted either as a partisan move or as an attempt to assert Congressional power over the court. In their column, they wrote:

It would be a mistake for the court to view the Murphy bill as a challenge to its power. It is rather an invitation. No rule is thrust on the justices. Under the Murphy bill, the justices are asked to start with the code governing other federal judges, but are then free to make “any amendments or modifications” they deem “appropriate.” A response that says, in effect, “We won’t do it because you can’t make us” will hurt the court and the rule of law. So will ignoring the mandate.

Read more about the legislation and the debate surrounding it on Gavel Grab.

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WI Supreme Court Justices Debate New Recusal Rules

Wisconsin Supreme Court justices discussed changes to the state’s judicial ethics code on Friday, but couldn’t seem to decide on alterations to recusal rules, reports the Legal Newsline.

The justices held an Open Rules Conference on Friday to discuss Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s proposed revisions. According to the article, Abrahamson would like to see the court follow provisions from  a code of conduct created by the American Bar Association.

Newly reelected Justice Pat Roggensack argued that the court should not be revising the code in an open meeting forum.

Justice David Prosser said he was worried that attorneys and special interest groups would abuse the new recusal rules, and use them to push certain justices off a case.

Both Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley are in support of making the changes in the open, the article says.

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Ex-Sen. Specter Urges Recusal Rules for Supreme Court

Former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, saying the Supreme Court’s 5-4 “recurrent” ideological split has “shaken confidence in its integrity,” calls on Congress to set judicial recusal rules for the high court if the justices don’t act.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Specter also sounds off on the high court’s 2000 Bush v. Gore ruling ”in which the justices elected George W. Bush by one vote with a tortured interpretation of ‘threaten[ed]irreparable harm,’” and its 2010 Citizens United decision.

“Enormous expenditures from political action committees have turned the Republican presidential primaries into a billionaires’ auction and threaten to enable big money to elect our next president,” Specter, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Republican-turned-Democrat, writes about the aftermath of Citizens United.

The high court will hear oral arguments in the federal health care case next week, with all of its justices expected to be present. That’s despite calls by groups and individuals for recusal by Justices Elena Kagan and/or Clarence Thomas, along with proposals for the court to formally adopt an ethics code spelling out procedures for recusal by a justice (see Gavel Grab).

Specter touches on the high court’s landmark judicial recusal ruling in 2009, Caperton v. Massey, in urging the justices to formally adopt recusal standards:

“Starting with the 17th-century principle from Lord Coke that ‘no man can be a judge in his own case,’ Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the Caperton decision that a judge ‘accused of bias’ should not be ‘the sole trier of fact’ on ‘inquiring into actual bias.’ Why wouldn’t that rationale apply equally to require review of a Supreme Court justice’s decision to sit under questionable circumstances, at least a review by his or her colleagues?”

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Editorial Proposes Recusal Reform for Supreme Court

A federal judge’s decision whether to recuse when faced with a potential conflict of interest cannot be left to the judge alone to decide, but must be reviewed by other jurists, a New York Times editorial argues in advocating the same standard for Supreme Court justices.

The editorial is entitled, “A Way Forward on Judicial Ethics.” It suggests that a proposal by legal ethics expert Stephen Gillers of the New York University School of Law would be a “sensible recusal process” for the high court to adopt.

Under Gillers’ proposal, if a justice decided against recusing when he received such a motion, either the chief justice or senior associate justice — if the motion concerned the chief justice — would weigh whether the motion was meritorious. If it was deemed to have merit, he would send it to the full court for a written decision, with the justice at issue not participating. A majority would be required to mandate a justice’s recusal.

“This approach would add little to the court’s workload since recusal motions are rare. But it would add considerably to the court’s credibility with the American public,” the editorial says.

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Nan Aron: 'Question of Integrity' Hangs Over Supreme Court

The Alliance for Justice (AFJ) weighs in on continuing calls to implement a Code of Conduct to the U.S. Supreme Court in a Huffington Post article. Introducing a new video, AFJ President Nan Aron says the public’s confidence in the Court is greatly reduced by the absence of an ethics code that applies to all other federal judges.

Aron argues that the general public must perceive judges as impartial arbiters of the law, rather than partisan agenda-setters, in order for the judiciary to function effectively:

“Everyone who walks into a courtroom needs to know they will get a fair hearing before a judge who has not pre-judged their case as part of a political agenda. …As a country rooted in the rule of law, we simply can’t afford to have Supreme Court justices who feel unconstrained by the same formal ethical standards that bind all other federal judges. The code prohibits participation in political activities. It bans serving as the keynoter at fundraising events, no matter how seemingly benign. It instructs judges not to do anything that creates even the ‘appearance of impropriety.’ ”

A new Alliance for Justice short film, A Question of Integrity: Politics, Ethics, and the Supreme Court,

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMoawSfR-No

provides examples of questionable ethical conduct by the Justices. Among these are Justice Thomas’ and Scalia’s trips to a Federalist Society conference hosted by the Koch brothers and keynote speeches by Justice Alito at American Spectator magazine and Intercollegiate Studies Institute fundraisers.

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Lawmakers Push to Advance Supreme Ethics Code

Forty-three House Democrats are pushing for a House Judiciary Committee hearing on a bill that would apply to Supreme Court justices the same ethics code that other federal judges are required to follow, according to a New York Times article.

Ethics questions have been raised about the conduct of certain justices in connection with appearances at political events, with the acceptance of favors from a conservative contributor, and regarding the work of Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife, Virginia Thomas, on behalf of conservative causes. Justices from both the liberal and conservative wings of the court have been targeted by critics who ask whether the conduct erodes public confidence in an impartial court.

Murphy’s legislation, which was the subject of earlier Gavel Grab posts, would have the Judicial Conference establish a process for investigating ethics complaints about justices, and justices would be required to explain why they did or did not recuse from hearing a case. If a justice declined to step aside from hearing a case, the rest of the court could disqualify him or her.

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Analyst: 'Senility v. Impropriety' at Supreme Court

The fresh perspective that legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick, a Canadian, brings to writing about U.S.  judicial affairs is on display again. In Slate, she asks whether questions that were recently raised about Supreme Court ethics have gotten any traction.

Her commentary is headlined, “Senility v. Impropriety: Do Supreme Court justices worry more about appearing senile than they do about appearing unfair?” She examines public utterances by justices and former justices to arrive at an answer:

“While the justices are quite open about discussing their fears of overstaying their welcome on the job, they are loath even to consider questions about whether they have been compromised by financial or personal dealings with parties to the cases pending before the court. … The appearance of senility seems to be a larger worry than the appearance of impropriety.”

As Gavel Grab has reported earlier, questions have been raised about the ethics of some conservative justices, and the court has been urged to adopt the ethics code that governs judges who sit on lower federal courts. Some conservatives, in turn, have questioned whether Justice Elena Kagan — a former U.S. solicitor general — should recuse herself from any health care law challenges coming before the high court. Read more

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Supreme Court Urged to Adopt Ethics Code

A New York Times editorial is urging the Supreme Court to adopt the code of conduct that governs lower federal court judges.

An investigative article in the newspaper recently raised ethics questions about Justice Clarence Thomas’s friendship with a Texas real estate magnate and donor to conservative causes (see Gavel Grab). It focused  on the businessman’s financing of a museum project in Justice Thomas’s birthplace of Pin Point, Ga., that will in part touch on the judge’s history.

Using that article as a springboard, the Times editorial asserted that Justice Thomas “does not appear to believe that he needs to adhere” to the rules in the federal code of judicial conduct, although justices have said they comply with it voluntarily. The rules say judges “should not personally participate” in fundraising for charitable efforts. About Justice Thomas, his benefactor, and the museum, the editorial says:

“This case is the latest evidence that the Supreme Court’s voluntary compliance with the judges’ conduct code isn’t enough to protect impartiality and credibility. Justice Thomas seems utterly unconcerned with those rules. Read more

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