Supreme Court under fire following what critics say is a wave of ethical lapses

Relationships with conservative donors and undisclosed real estate deals have increased scrutiny on the justices.

·6-min read
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, center
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., at a demonstration calling for the impeachment of Justice Clarence Thomas, July 28, 2022. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images for MoveOn)

A series of revelations about alleged ethical conflicts is raising questions about the credibility and independence of the United States Supreme Court.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative, lamented what he believes are unfair attacks on the court and a lack of defense from other legal elites.

“We are being hammered daily, and I think quite unfairly in a lot of instances,” Alito said. “And nobody, practically nobody, is defending us. The idea has always been that judges are not supposed to respond to criticisms, but if the courts are being unfairly attacked, the organized bar will come to their defense.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who has been critical of the court’s rightward shift for years, is pushing his proposed Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act in response to the recent stories. The legislation would require the court to adopt more rigorous disclosure rules in line with those required of members of Congress.

In a statement to Yahoo News on Monday, Whitehouse said, “I’m not surprised that a hard look at the court has revealed a torrent of ethical lapses by the justices.”

“A noxious cocktail of creepy rightwing billionaires, phony front groups, amenable justices, large sums of money, and secrecy has been brewing at the Supreme Court for years now,” Whitehouse continued. “To repair the American public’s trust in our highest court, the justices need to implement a transparent and enforceable process for investigating misconduct. If the court won’t act, Congress must, and passing my SCERT Act would be the right place to start.”

Here’s a roundup of the recent reporting on the court.

Luxury vacations and real estate deals

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, left, with Chief Justice John Roberts
Thomas, left, with Chief Justice John Roberts in October 2022. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The most high-profile example of alleged Supreme Court impropriety involves Justice Clarence Thomas, whose ties to conservative billionaire Harlan Crow were revealed in a series of reports last month. First, ProPublica reported that Crow took Thomas on luxury vacations, then revealed that Crow had bought property from Thomas in deals the justice did not disclose. Days later, the Washington Post reported that Thomas had been claiming income from a real estate firm that hasn’t existed since 2006. Additionally, Thomas’s wife, Ginni, was an active participant in attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election, including attending the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

Last week, Politico reported that Justice Neil Gorsuch had sold a property nine days after being confirmed to the Supreme Court to the head of a law firm with business before the high court, but failed to report that fact on disclosure forms.

Gorsuch reported between $250,000 and $500,000 of income on a property he co-owned that was sold to Bryan Duffy, the CEO of multinational law firm Greenberg Traurig. Since being appointed to the Supreme Court, Gorsuch has heard more than 20 cases argued by lawyers with Greenberg Traurig, Politico reported. Of those for which his opinion was recorded, Gorsuch has sided with the firm eight times and gone against it four.

‘Successful people have successful friends’

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts
Roberts at the Capitol for the first impeachment trial of then-President Donald Trump, Jan. 16, 2020. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

On Friday, Insider reported that Chief Justice John Roberts’s wife, Jane, made $10.3 million in commissions between 2007 and 2014 working as a recruiter for elite law firms and corporations. The documents revealing the commissions were part of a whistleblower complaint filed to Congress in December. That whistleblower, Kendal Price, worked with Jane Roberts at Major, Lindsey & Africa and told Insider, “I was discouraged from ever raising the issue.”

“And I realized that even the law firms who were Jane’s clients had nowhere to go,” Price continued. “They were being asked by the spouse of the chief justice for business worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and there was no one to complain to. Most of these firms were likely appearing or seeking to appear before the Supreme Court. It’s natural that they’d do anything they felt was necessary to be competitive.”

In a 2015 arbitration hearing, Jane Roberts defended her work, saying that clients “come to me” and “Successful people have successful friends.”

Conservative pipeline

Members of the Supreme Court in October 2022
Members of the Supreme Court soon after the confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Oct. 7, 2022. (Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty Images)

On Sunday, the New York Times published a report about the ties between the George Mason University law school and the conservative justices on the court, including Gorsuch and Thomas. The law school is named for Antonin Scalia, the conservative justice who died in 2016. The $30 million donation to rename the school after the originalist justice was organized by Leonard Leo, whose work with the Federalist Society has been a leading driver in getting conservative judges appointed throughout the federal system.

“The law school has developed an unusually expansive relationship with the justices of the high court — welcoming them as teachers but also as lecturers and special guests at school events,” read the report. “Scalia Law, in turn, has marketed that closeness with the justices as a unique draw to prospective students and donors.”

Code of conduct

Sen. Dick Durbin
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at a hearing on April 19. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

With the integrity of the court under fire, Roberts declined an invitation last week to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the request of Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill. In his letter to Roberts, Durbin said he hoped the chief justice would speak “regarding the ethical rules that govern the justices of the Supreme Court and potential reforms to those rules.”

Roberts was not swayed, however.

“Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee by the Chief Justice of the United States is exceedingly rare, as one might expect in light of separation of powers concerns and the importance of preserving judicial independence,” he wrote in response.

Last year, a group of legal scholars wrote to Roberts urging him to adopt a code of conduct for the court. Polling has shown waning trust in the Supreme Court in recent years, especially in the wake of the repeal of Roe v. Wade last June, which resulted in millions of Americans losing access to abortion services.

Last summer, public confidence in the Supreme Court reached a record low, and in September a Marquette Law poll found a slim majority of Americans favored expanding the court beyond nine justices, a move Republicans and some Democrats have described as extreme. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll last month found that only 12% of Americans had a lot of faith in the Supreme Court, versus 25% who had none. Forty-four percent of respondents said they approved of how the court was handling its job, versus 45% who disapproved.