Historical origins and escalation of ethical questions about U.S. Supreme Court justices

Historically, the integrity of judges has been subject to scrutiny, albeit sometimes selective. In the 18th century, the judiciary operated under a different set of norms and expectations than today. Impartiality was assumed for judges, and allegations of ethical misconduct were less frequent. However, since the 20th century, concerns have escalated due to several reasons.

First, ethical sensibilities have changed, making conduct that was previously accepted as commonplace now regarded as unethical. Second, judicial impartiality is no longer assumed but recognized as a principle that needs to be regulated and monitored. The legal realism school of thought in the 1930s heightened awareness of potential biases and conflicts of interest, leading to ethical regulations.

Third, politics has factored into ethical questions, with opponents of justices leveraging ethical allegations to further partisan agendas. The 1960s witnessed several ethical imbroglios involving justices, which led to the establishment of judicial ethics codes across lower courts. However, the Supreme Court lacks a robust ethics code and does not require justices to take action against fellow justices who violate ethical codes.

Fourth, while all judges used to be seen as above ethical suspicion, societal changes and the growing cult of celebrity surrounding justices, both celebrated and attacked for their decisions and personal behavior, has made every justice a potential ethics question. Finally, allegations of ethical misconduct have become a tool for political gamesmanship, used by partisans to undermine justices whose ideology they oppose.

The judiciary and legal system need to address this concerning trend to restore public faith in the impartiality of justices and the integrity of the Supreme Court.

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