The funniest part of the new “ethics code” released by the Supreme Court this week is that it kicks off with laughable language that lets everyone know that the corrupt right-wing justices have no intention of following their own rules. In the very first paragraph, for instance, the justices address the public perception that they “regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules,” by simply shrugging it off as a “misunderstanding.” To which court observers immediately responded with, “Holy gaslighting, Batman!”
It’s not just the payola, but what it represents: an imperious court stacked with far-right justices who have become petty tyrants.
As much as Chief Justice John Roberts and the five other Federalist Society stooges on the court may believe otherwise, they cannot convince the American public that we just imagined the drumbeat of stories of billionaire patronage of these alleged public servants. They cannot wish away the mountains of evidence tirelessly compiled by ProPublica showing that billionaire and Nazi memorabilia enthusiast Harlan Crow spent years lavishing Justice Clarence Thomas with luxury vacations, while also buying his mom a house and paying tuition for his nephew. Nor can they wish away the story of Justice Samuel Alito being wined and dined in a private plane to Alaska on a billionaire-funded vacation. In part, these stories are so memorable because of the much photographic evidence the fine team at ProPublica dug up.
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So this ridiculous “code of ethics” serves to expose how much the justices don’t understand — refuse to understand, really — why it is that most Americans hate them so much. It’s not just the payola, but what it represents: an imperious court stacked with far-right justices who have become petty tyrants. Men (and one woman) who not only believe they are above basic rules, but that the rest of us should be forced into servitude to a fundamentalist Christian belief system. If it were just the bribe-taking, most people wouldn’t care so much. But it’s that the money serves the larger goal of stripping basic rights away from most Americans.
To be certain, most of the mainstream media treats the Supreme Court ethics scandal and the court’s unpopular decisions as discrete issues. On the surface, this makes a rough sort of sense. Alito didn’t write the Dobbs decision, which ended decades of abortion rights, because hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer gifted him a fancy vacation. Thomas didn’t gut decades of gun regulation because Crow suggested it while they sipped wine and admired Hitler’s paintings. These men are authentically hateful trolls who have spent decades longing to make ours a nation of back alley abortions and escalating gun violence.
But in a much deeper sense, which I suspect most Americans understand, the billionaire benefactor schemes are deeply intertwined with their far-right decisions that are unjustified by either law or history. Both are rooted in the despotic attitudes that the Federalist Society has bred in its hand-picked judges. The Federalist Society judges have been repeatedly flattered into believing they are destined to rule over the little people like kings. Alito feels entitled to his billionaire-funded vacation for the same reason he cites a 16th-century witch-burner to justify abortion bans. Same story with Thomas, with his incoherent arguments decimating gun safety laws. They get fancy vacations and taxpayer-funded security, while the peasants have to suffer forced childbirth and random mass shootings.
The other conservative justices are less obnoxious about it, but they, too, ascribe to this hierarchical worldview, where they are monarchical authorities and the rest of us owe unquestioning obedience. When the Senate Judiciary Committee asked Roberts to testify about the court and ethics issue, he ignored the request for two weeks before issuing a condescending refusal, claiming “separation of powers” as the reason. This is an insulting excuse, as the separation of powers is tied directly to a checks-and-balances system, which should include congressional oversight of judicial ethics.
Americans are starting to see the conservative legal community, as organized by the Federalist Society, for what it is: A collection of pompous jerks who are cosseted by wealth and privilege, sitting around deciding the rest of us don’t deserve even basic rights.
The irony is that the Judiciary Committee chair, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has not hidden how much he’d rather not be dealing with the corruption of the Supreme Court. Durbin has repeatedly punted responsibility to Roberts, and in such a way that indicates a willingness to accept empty gestures in lieu of real reform. But Roberts and his crew were unwilling to offer even a token nod to the idea that they owe anything to the public that pays their salaries.
This contempt basically forced Durbin’s hand. He’s been moving towards Senate hearings where Crow would be subpoenaed, along with Leonard Leo, the shadowy figure behind the Federalist Society. Republicans are desperate to keep this from happening. They’re pulling out all the stops to threaten Durbin into backing off. This “ethics code” is just the latest move, an effort to create the illusion of reform that’s just good enough to give Durbin an excuse to give up dealing with the court’s corruption.
Republicans aren’t this frantic because they worry that Thomas’s free yacht trips, in and of themselves, will lose them the 2024 election. It’s because this all goes straight back to the abortion issue, which has already proved to be a massive loser for Republicans. Direct, if forced, testimony from Crow and Leo could paint a damning picture of how the current Supreme Court operates. Americans will be invited to think about Alito and Thomas, swirling expensive brandy in crystal glasses, as they discuss their wish to force working-class women to have more babies, who can then be put to work as the court also rolls back child labor laws. People are already angry enough about Dobbs. They’ll be even angrier when reminded that billionaires think families should be forced to raise a dozen kids on a minimum wage.
The good news is the “ethics code” is so obviously useless and unenforceable that it’s impossible to pretend it’s a real thing. Durbin was even forced into a mealy-mouthed statement about how it “falls short.”
Legal experts in the media have been more robust in their criticism. Law reporter Elie Mystal didn’t hold back on MSNBC, saying, “This is not worth the paper it is printed on. It is like erecting a dam with a chain link fence. It’s a giant waste of time for everybody.”
It’s not just that the ethics code is voluntary at best, and so likely to be ignored by all but the liberal justices. It’s also that the “misunderstanding” language indicates that Federalist Society Six won’t even allow that it was a bad idea for justices to accept millions of dollars worth of gifts, and largely without even meeting the low bar of disclosing it under federal law. You cannot reform if you refuse to accept that you did anything wrong.
But again, the reason that this goes beyond your typical D.C. scandal, which most Americans ignore, is that the justices bring this scorn for justice, ethics, and rule of law to their decisions. The Dobbs decision is the most infuriating, but it’s also a symbol of a larger constellation of unjustifiable rulings undermining human rights, democracy, and basic safety. Americans are starting to see the conservative legal community, as organized by the Federalist Society, for what it is: A collection of pompous jerks who are cosseted by wealth and privilege, sitting around deciding the rest of us don’t deserve even basic rights. This fake “code of ethics” is yet another reminder of how out-of-touch and cruel these justices really are.
about the Supreme Court’s ethics scandal