The Supreme Court is, in theory, the last stronghold of defense for the Constitution. However, recent years have shown that the current set of justices is largely more interested in the optics of justice rather than the execution of it. Let’s be clear: these are nine people chosen for lifelong terms with no oversight, a la the kings of yesteryear. The only thing the current slate can seem to agree on is that there ought to be no ethics code at all for Supreme Court justices, who evidently sit above the law and are therefore not beholden to the same standards as the public they are intended to represent. This, at least, is not a partisan issue. All nine justices signed a joint statement seeking to push back against demands for the same kinds of checks and balances we expect of every other government institution.
These people are meant to be the last line of defense between those who seek to destroy the equal rights of Americans and American citizens themselves. Instead, they are actively panting after billionaires who seek to strip those rights until the United States resembles a corporatocracy.
(See: Starbucks, who shut unionizing stores down. See: Amazon, which generated 599 million tons of plastic waste in 2020. See: Universal Studio execs, who destroyed a tree canopy striking workers were using for shade in the midst of the worst heat waves on record. See: 2021, when the lobbying industry raked in $3.7 billion.)
Of course, this is the same institution that granted corporations legal protections under the 14th Amendment as ‘people,’ so perhaps our expectation of judicial protection was overinflated to begin with.
How can we expect those who associate themselves only with the most exclusive set of billionaires hoping to court their favor to behave in a way that benefits everyone under their purview? This, perhaps, is the greatest crime of the Supreme Court: They are out of touch with the lifeblood of the nation and genuinely believe they have the inherent right to operate in whatever way they feel is correct. If the Court was truly apolitical and truly represented the best outcomes for the people they are intended to serve, this might not be such an issue. However, in a court brimming with hypocrisy, self-aggrandizment, and a refusal to see themselves as anything less than a court of absolute kings and queens, it represents a leap backwards for freedom and justice.
Every other free democracy recognizes that lifetime appointments are a Bad Idea. They harken back to the days when absolute monarchs ruled over their subjects with an iron fist, uncaring and fundamentally unaware of what the people beneath them needed or desired. The United States was intended to be the first truly representative democracy, where the average person could live without fear of their government stripping away their rights or access to capital. Historically, wealthy monarchs and nobles were immediately alarmed at what they rightfully saw as a threat to their authority. In an interview for PolitiFact back in 2016, Princeton professor of American history, Sean Wilentz had this to say: “It was radical and revolutionary…It was the opposite of the formal rule of the rich and well-born.”
Our nation was established to challenge that of tyrannical governments, who sought to justify their personal beliefs by way of oppression and absolute rule. The Constitution, which the Supreme Court is tasked with interpreting, originally gave Congress the power to establish the Court and to define its operational parameters.
Samuel Chase, to date the only member of the Supreme Court to be impeached (though acquitted a year later, he remained on the Court), faced that precisely because he entangled himself in the murky strings of politics. Rather than remaining impartial, Chase decided to publicly denigrate the
Democratic-Republican Party as a matter of partisan disagreement. Even the appearance of impropriety threatens the still young and shaky foundations of our democracy. Yet it doesn’t seem to bother the current court. In 2021, Americans For Prosperity Foundation Vs. Bonta was handed down with a verdict of 6-3 in favor of the ruling. Essentially, it struck down a previous ruling that donors to political campaigns and organizations must disclose their donations. With its destruction rises a new era of corporate takeover. The two organizations who brought the case to court? The Americans for Prosperity Foundation, whose billionaire Koch brothers have for decades fought to push American political sensibilities as far to the right as possible, and who funded ultra-conservative media establishment FOX News. The second is the Thomas More Law Center, a law firm openly crusading for the United States to focus nearly exclusively on the demands of ultra-religious Christians. Ironically, they have this to say about their motivations: “Our ministry was inspired by the recognition that the issues of the Culture War being waged across America are not being decided by our elected representatives, but by unelected judges holding life-time appointments who often rule according to their political ideology rather than existing law.” (Evidently, their sense of irony only functions when turned on others.)
Clarence Thomas, whose wife Ginni attempted to pressure Wisconsin senators into overthrowing the 2020 election, seems to find no issue with his spouse being a highly active member of an increasingly radicalized partisan activist society. He also seemed to find little problem with his wife attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government of the United States of America, which he is tasked with defending.
Samuel Alito, who also works part-time as the Court’s personal attack dog, preemptively wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal detailing how his personal friendship with billionaire Paul Singer wasn’t, in fact, problematic. When six-time Pulitzer Prize award winners Justin Elliot and Josh Kaplan (of ProPublica) prepared to release an article detailing the intensely unethical nature of Alito’s business dealings with Singer, the justice responded petulantly. Evidently gifts including private plane rides of a monetary value over $100,000 were not necessary for our esteemed High Justice of The Court to disclose. Worse still, Singer’s hedge fund appealed to the court at least ten times during Alito’s tenure. Not once did the justice recuse himself, even in cases well publicized with Singer’s name.
Neil Gorsuch, who The Alliance for Justice deemed “not qualified to serve on the Supreme Court,” has a long history of dismissing the people in exchange for massive profit. In April, Politico reported that a law firm head who purchased a 40-acre piece of land owned by Gorsuch had several cases before the court. Even more suspect, the land had been on the market for two years. Nine days after Gorsuch was confirmed, the head executive of Greenberg Traurig (which regularly operates in front of the court) purchased the land for $1.8 million. The
timing was suspect, to say the least, and Gorsuch refused to disclose the buyer on his federal disclosure forms.
Brett Kavanaugh, who very conveniently determined that sitting presidents ought not to be indicted after his appointment to the court by President Donald Trump, is an especially egregious example of how far the Court has fallen. The justice had no less than 83 ethics complaints regarding his conduct at confirmation hearings. In a stunning display of hyperpartisanship not suitable for any courtroom –let alone the Highest Court– Kavanaugh accused Democrats of a liberal conspiracy to prevent him from being appointed. “When I did at least OK enough that it looked like I might actually get confirmed, a new tactic was needed. Some of you were lying in wait and had it ready.” He threatened openly partisan retaliation in response: “As we all know, in the United States political system of the early 2000s, what goes around comes around.” Because of the system that operates judicial courts, a federal judge determined the lower courts had no power to remove him from his seat. This decision essentially renders the Supreme Court without legal consequences for the decisions of the justices.
Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina and the third woman to sit on the Supreme Court, has made millions from her books. Her staff pushed public institutions to purchase copies, and she refused to recuse herself from cases that involved the publisher of her book, My Beloved World. Though perhaps minor in comparison to some of the more egregious violations of trust, Sotomayor nonetheless gleefully contributed to the degradation of institutional faith when she used her staff-public servants whose salaries are paid for by that very public-as book sharks and managerial agents. If she had been a public servant in Congress, Sotomayor would have faced intensive criticism and likely been asked to resign from her post. Because of judicial privilege, however, she remains free to execute her sales pitch and to continue violating one of the most basic ethical tenets: Don’t play where you work.
It is a matter of critical importance that the Supreme Court retain an impartial stance on political dealings and remove itself from the grasping clutches of moneyed interests. They are human, yes, but in serving the people of the United States of America, they are expected to rise above their base instincts. Justices are installed-ostensibly-because they are better than the rest. Supposedly, they are more impartial, intelligent, reasoned, and capable of tackling Constitutional complexities than any others. How are they meant to do that when they fail to instill a base code of ethics they expect every other American to adhere to?
It is not by accident that conservative, politically opportunistic vultures like Lindsey Graham (who openly opposes the freedom of choice when it comes to abortion) are clamoring to defend these injustices. When a Democratic ethics bill aimed at the most minor of Court reform was put in front of Graham, he derided it as “a bill to destroy a conservative court.” When a particular partisan group claims a governing body designed to be impartial, it should serve as a wake-up call to Americans and the Court itself. The destruction of Roe V. Wade, which allows states to deny abortion in direct violation of several indigenous religious beliefs, including Diné, Cherokee, Navajo, Lakota, Creek, Ohlone (as well as Jewish religious beliefs) is a key example of just how happy this court is to dismiss the rights of the many to satisfy extremists looking to impose their will on others. In exchange, they reap the rewards of the unjust system they were appointed to combat.
Supreme Court Justices, hear this now: You are being seen for your hypocrisy, for your blatant and flagrant disregard for the success of the people you claim to represent. Your function in this nation is vital to the continuation of a free democracy, yet you choose to align yourselves with a selective elite that courts your favor with expensive gifts. They hope to dissuade you from doing your job, and unfortunately, they have succeeded. As it stands currently, you embody the ideals of the very thing we sought to destroy in establishing a free and just nation: tyranny and the notion that individual beliefs ought to supersede the rights of the many. You operate as free agents who seek to impose their individual religious and political beliefs upon an unwilling public and deny rights to groups you deem less important than your own.
*(As of August 4th, Elena Kagan has expressed her support for some sort of ethics code, noting that “We are not imperial.” She remains the lone justice who has publicly admitted to the need for any form of oversight for the highest court in the land. Kagan’s disclosures are also far smaller in monetary value than any other justice, information that is publicly available on fixthecourt.com. Nevertheless, a bystander is a bystander, and her previous silence on this matter while all sorts of unethical dealings were happening on the Court is not forgotten or forgiven.)