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The Supreme Court is now adopting a code of ethics for justices

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court is adopting a code of ethics for the justices. This comes after growing criticism about wealthy benefactors giving gifts and trips to certain justices. There have been revelations that Justice Clarence Thomas received such favors from Harlan Crowe, a Republican donor. And others, including Justice Samuel Alito, have also been criticized for their relationships with donors and activists. Public trust in the court has fallen as the revelations pile up. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has been reading this new ethics code, and she's here in the studio. Hey, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hey there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So what is in the code?

TOTENBERG: The headline, I think, is that the code is trying to be relatively specific about what justices can and cannot do, but there's no enforcement mechanism as to what they're supposed not to do. So, for example, the code is very specific about financial transactions. You can have a real estate transaction as long as it's not before the court. And. Of course, this code reaffirms the commitment to the disclosure provisions that are in the existing code for all judges and that have not been entirely followed in the past. And it's very specific about family members, spouses, children, grandchildren, and recusal if one of those has a case before the court or is a lawyer before the court.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned spouses. There's been a lot of criticism of Justice Thomas' wife and her activities to promote political causes that end up in the court. Also, Justice Sotomayor has been criticized for using her staff in setting up her schedule and trips in her book tour. Have either of those sorts of cases been addressed in this code?

TOTENBERG: Well, the code says that if a spouse or child living with the justice has a substantial interest in the outcome of a case, financial and any other interest, the justice is supposed to recuse. Now, it would appear that that would mean that Justice Thomas would have had to recuse in matters in which his wife played a major role because she had a political business and was an advocate for political causes. But when it comes to book tours, the code is pretty clear that in scheduling trips, the court, for security reasons, must allow justices to use their office resources in making plans and that they may accept reasonable expense compensation. And the code even specifies that a justice may appear at events where her books are being sold.

SHAPIRO: But you said there is no enforcement mechanism. So what happens if a justice violates these rules?

TOTENBERG: Really nothing that we know of. There is no enforcement mechanism. The quote also makes clear that they shouldn't be speaking at any sort of a fundraising event for a cause that obviously might come before the court. They can attend, but they can't fundraise.

SHAPIRO: So this is a first, but it's also kind of toothless. Are the court's critics satisfied with it?

TOTENBERG: No, they weren't going to be satisfied no matter what. And this doesn't satisfy, I think, some of their critiques, which are for enforcement. So the progressive group take Back the Court said, with 53 uses of the word should and only six of the word must, the court's new code of ethics reads a lot like a friendly suggestion rather than a binding, enforceable guideline. Now, I did talk to Stephen Gillers before we went on the air. He's a leading ethics expert. And he said this is better than he expected, more detailed than he expected, but no enforcement mechanism. And that is the sort of Achilles heel.

SHAPIRO: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thank you.

TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.