In light of recent Supreme Court rulings that have had a major impact on the abortion debate, religious freedom, affirmative actions, and bureaucratic power, the media and politicians are demanding a new code of ethics in order to undermine the court’s rulings. Although these demands are not based on pure motives we must recognize the truth in them. The Federalist 51 provides a critical insight that makes the case for ethics reform. Men are not angels.
The Founding Fathers were concerned about corruption and sought to combat it. Consider their argument for not allowing Congress to select the president. They feared that corrupt deals would be made in the government. In such cases, both the selectors and the selected may be suspect. Its lack of long-term interest made the Electoral College less vulnerable to corruption.
The fact that Supreme Court justices are shielded from election and serve essentially forever raises legitimate concerns about corruption and public accountability. The Supreme Court has added layers of secrecy and discretion to its deliberations. We often have limited understanding of the process decades after Supreme Court opinions are released. This makes the accusations seem more plausible, and it leaves Americans wanting to have a say in their decisions. We should not alter the way the court is selected, the length of its service, or the secrecy surrounding its decisions. The institution’s role is best served when all contribute to its success. They can concentrate on what the law demands, such as giving equal protection to unpopular litigants. The secrecy of the proceedings allows the justices the freedom to make honest decisions without worrying that their undeveloped ideas or careless observations might be published in every major newspaper. The justices can hone their legal arguments and refine them, enhancing the quality of the decisions. We could benefit from clearer and more inclusive rules that would eliminate the appearance of corruption. The public does not need to know every cigarette or stick of gum that is exchanged during a break at work, but they should be aware of items, trips, or accommodations with a certain amount of value. Once we have established this transparency, it is important to consider which items or situations the justices shouldn’t accept due to any potential favoritism. We could, in this way, maintain the current structure of the court and its verdicts while reducing the chances that opportunists will delegitimize it.
We must also be more vigilant against corruption, if it occurs. Clarence Thomas’ friend may have loaned money to him in 1999 for his now-famous recreational vehicle. We would not likely find any bribery if the public was aware of all the details. But the fact that we know so little about this significant transaction and have few means to gain it should make us worry.
Another instance involving a different justice may involve serious questions about whether certain benefits, gifts or loans could have affected judicial decisions. If the majority of the court was again progressive, would conservatives dismiss these stories as easily if they were about Justice Sonia Sotomayor and/or the recently retired Justice Stephen Breyer. It is true that this prevents the justices from performing tasks with or on behalf of each other, as would be done by normal citizens. In accepting a seat on the nation’s top court, justices also have to accept that they cannot live a normal life and must be extra cautious in their interactions with litigants. In Proverbs we read that “The wicked takes a bribe secretly to pervert justice.” Our legal system is firmly based on this principle and requires justices to make decisions based on law, not personal interests. Recent revelations or accusations made against justices reveal no clear violations of this principle. We should be able to prove that the justices adhere to this principle. Court itself appears to be unable to move forward with any internal efforts. There are legitimate disagreements over how far Congress should go. We should first debate the validity of these rules, and then decide who will implement them. Let’s ignore the false allegations and focus on the need to reform and its progress.
Adam Carrington is associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College.Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.