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A Court Adrift on Ethics Oversight

Thu, 06/06/2024 - 11:04


Reports that a Supreme Court justice had flags associated with authoritarian nationalists on display at his home and vacation house are bizarre, if not a surprise from what we already know about the outrageously partisan right wing. But what may be more stunning is that an obvious appearance of bias does not matter at the highest court. Nor is there a meaningful form of ethics oversight other than the Senate asking justices to show up at a committee hearing. It is different for the lower courts. In New York, a Commission on Judicial Conduct is empowered to review complaints from the state level all the way down to local justice courts.

Local justices do not always conduct themselves with appropriate remove, but, in general, a sense of decorum and respect for the process prevails. This is not always the case; sometimes judges in the higher courts are prone to speechifying or back-room favors for old friends — hinted at in the extraordinary vitriol that a judge formerly overseeing cases involving beach driving and the East Hampton Town Airport displayed. A lot depends on the individual judges, though in our experience, the seriousness with which they approach their roles is commendable, especially at the local level.

Members of the New York State Commission on Judicial Ethics are selected in a way that reduces the chances of one point of view or another taking over. Four members are appointed by the governor, three by the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, and one by each of the four leaders of the State Legislature. The commission has the power to hire its own staff and investigators. A more complicated range of oversight is in place in the federal courts. These include the Judicial Conference of the United States, regional circuit councils, and, the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. The Supreme Court is different and answers only to itself.

Watchdog organizations have called for Congress to impose safeguards. Steps include effective disclosure requirements and a stronger recusal process. Congress could also pass a binding code of conduct for the justices to follow. It would be interesting to hear from Representative Nick LaLota and his potential Democratic challengers on where they stand.

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