This fall, a Wall Street Journal investigation found that at least 131 federal judges violated the law by hearing cases in which they had a financial interest in one of the parties. What’s more, 61 judges actively traded shares in a party to an ongoing case.
Every day we get more damning information about Ginni Thomas, Clarence Thomas’s wife. She actively plotted to overturn an American election, yet her husband still sits on the Supreme Court, and has refused to recuse himself from cases related to that same election.
Our courts are in crisis.
Congress can and must act to restore the judiciary’s integrity and prevent anything like this from happening again. In addition to passing Rep. Johnson’s much-needed Supreme Court Ethics Act creating a code of ethics for the Supreme Court, Congress can create a simple, enforceable, and comprehensive judicial conflicts of interest regime with two small policy changes.
First, Congress should enact a blanket prohibition on federal judges owning or trading any individual stocks, bonds, or similar financial instruments. This isn’t about forcing judges to take a vow of poverty—there are many ways to invest money that don’t come with the risk of creating conflicts, like mutual or index funds. Rather, this is about designing an effective legal regime to prevent conflicts of interest that undermine confidence in our democracy.
Second, Congress should apply the federal criminal conflict of interest statute, 18 U.S.C. § 208, to the judiciary. Currently, Section 208 only applies to employees of the executive branch, and serves as the stick behind federal ethics rules. Applying this criminal law to the judiciary would add teeth to the existing requirements, providing a mechanism to hold judges accountable for egregious violations of their ethical duties.
Federal judges are granted lifetime tenure, an immense privilege that carries with it a responsibility to uphold our laws. Because that role often requires federal judges to eschew public opinion, political pressure and other outside influences, the Constitution was drafted to provide a high bar for removing them short of their retirement or death. That constitutional protection makes it even more important that federal judges adhere to the highest standards of ethical conduct. Make them do so, please. Thanks.
▶ First sent on June 16, 2022 by Jess Craven