SCOTUS Finally Has New Rules, Will They Actually Rein In Clarence Thomas?

By Jessica Washington

After an escalating series of scandals, the Supreme Court finally issued a code of conduct. But will this new code actually do anything to curb the behavior of some of the more notorious justices (**cough cough** Justice Clarence Thomas), or will it just sit there collecting dust?

Not to burst any bubbles, but the first page of the justice’s statement kind of gives the whole game away. “For the most part these rules and principles are not new,” reads the statement, “The absence of a Code, however has led in recent years to the misunderstanding that the Justices of this Court, unlike all other jurists in this country, regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules. To dispel this misunderstanding, we are issuing this code, which largely represents a codification of principles that we have long regarded as governing our conduct.”

For those unfamiliar with Supreme Court Justice shade, the “we just wrote this thing to get you off our back” vibe radiates off the page.

Can Clarence Thomas Still Get Gifts From Harlan Crow?

Now, we could walk you through every detail of this 14-page document, but what most people really want to know is whether this will actually stop the kinds of ethics scandals we’ve all been reading about.

The short answer: this probably won’t do anything.

The scandal we all know focuses on Justice Clarence Thomas’ cozy gift-ladden relationship with Billionaire Harlan Crow. The Republican donor has provided Thomas with luxury trips and even paid for the child he raised to attend private school. Thomas failed to disclose these gifts until after ProPublica and other outlets revealed them publicly.

The Code of Conduct does mention gifts, but it just says that Justices have to follow the already-established rules on gifting. The rules re-iterate that Justices have to disclose these gifts, but to be clear, they were already supposed to be doing that.

The Code of Conduct Lacks Teeth

The big reason it seems unlikely that this will foster a ton of change is that it completely lacks teeth. The code isn’t binding, and it’s left entirely up to the Court to enforce.

Court watchdog groups have been quick to point out the flaw of allowing the justices to police themselves.

“If the nine are going to release an ethics code with no enforcement mechanism and remain the only police of the nine, then how can the public trust they’re going to do anything more than simply cover for one another, ethics be damned?” wrote Gabe Roth, Executive Director of left-leaning watchdog group Fix The Court, in a statement.

Democrats have also not responded well to the new rules. “We cannot rely on Supreme Court justices to hold themselves accountable,” wrote Representative Ayanna Pressley, who has been a leader on court reform. “This new ethics code is pointless without enforcement, and Congress must pass the *binding* code of ethics the Court so desperately needs.”

Democratic leaders such as Sen. Dick Durbin, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, have argued that this is a good step but nowhere near enough. Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham, who serves as Ranking member on the committee, has been remarkably quiet on the subject despite previously railing against an ethics code.