“The new Supreme Court ethics code released on Monday looks good on paper, experts in legal ethics said. But only on paper. Its lack of an enforcement mechanism means that it will operate on the honor system, with individual justices deciding for themselves whether their conduct complies with the code.” — New York Times, 11/14/23
Fellow justices, now that we’ve adopted a “new” “ethics” “code,” you may be wondering about compliance. Accordingly, I have composed the following series of scenarios based on past conversations I have had with you. Please note that recusal is still up to you, and there are still no penalties for failure to disclose anything. So, while the below should be taken as strict guidance, you should also be aware, just among us, that you can still do pretty much whatever the hell you want.
Should I recuse?
Your relationship with a party might theoretically influence your judgment of a case. Below are scenarios for you to consider, followed by the correct answer as to whether you should recuse yourself.
1. Your wife is a party to the case.
Answer: No. We have already demonstrated beyond a doubt that we are above being influenced by women.
2. Your wife is employed by a party to a case.
Answer: No. Federal salaries being what they are these days, our spouses have to make a living.
3. Your wife throws a party that happens to be attended by a party to a case.
Answer: I remember that party—could you send to my rich friend’s caterer the recipe your rich friend’s caterer used for those delectable truffle-oil-fried ground-pheasant sliders?
4. You and your wife attend a party thrown by a party to the case.
Answer: Who am I to forbid you from attending a party? That would violate your freedom of assembly.
5. The party mentioned in scenario 4 was at a mansion on a tropical lagoon, and you were flown there on a private jet by a party to the case.
Answer: Sounds like a blast. At this lagoon, was there water-skiing? Tell me there was water-skiing.
6. There was also a party on the private jet on the way to the party thrown by a party to the case.
Answer: Could you slip them my name? Especially if there was water-skiing.
7. And a party on the private jet on the way back, still with a party to the case.
Answer: Next year, I’m in. Also, my preferred water ski length is 160 cm.
Do I report this?
For transparency, our ethics code encourages the reporting of significant gifts of money or in kind. Here are some relevant scenarios.
1. A friend gives you a ride.
Answer: No. Everybody in America gives their friends rides.
2. A friend gives you a ride in a luxury vehicle.
Answer: Again, no. Do we really need a scenario for every car model?
3. A friend gives you a ride in a $250,000 luxury RV.
Answer: Enough already. A ride is a ride is a ride.
4. A friend allows you to drive their $250,000 luxury RV.
Answer: Now we’re talking. How does it handle? I’ve never driven one of those.
5. A friend gives you an interest-free loan to buy your own $250,000 luxury RV in exchange for the vague promise that you’ll give them rides in it.
Answer: Sounds like you’re doing them a favor. About that RV—could I, maybe, take it for a spin sometime?
6. The friend forgives your interest-free loan on the $250,000 luxury RV.
Answer: Forgiveness is a virtue. Except for people on death row—that’s different. Incidentally, I bet those RVs ride like a dream on the highway, like, for example, between DC and a certain lake house I rent every summer in upstate New York. The water-skiing there is terrific.
Is there an appearance of impropriety?
As members of the highest Court, we should behave in ways that are beyond reproach, unless that reproach comes from voting rights activists, in which case, it’s a badge of honor. Here are scenarios concerning the appearance of possible influence by outside parties.
1. An industry group flies you to attend a six-day, expenses-paid conference in Aspen.
Answer: No. If you are meeting with corporate executives, then by definition, everything is on the up and up.
2. You’re flown to Italy and paid $30,000 donated by a billionaire with business before the Court to teach a three-week law seminar that consists of you telling a few hours of legal anecdotes.
Answer: You guys travel quite a bit. Maybe I should get out more.
3. You get paid to speak at a fundraiser for an organization with all sorts of business before the Court.
Answer: Wait—you didn’t mention getting flown anywhere. Did I miss something?
4. An acquaintance with business before the Court flies you to a private resort, where you spend two weeks at their expense.
Answer: Good, back to flying. No: If it’s a private resort, no one will see you there, so there’s no appearance of anything. About this resort—it doesn’t happen to have water-skiing, does it?