The U.S. Supreme Court is riddled with ethics issues. Several involve Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia Thomas, that raise significant concerns about his impartiality, because someone connected to several cases has given him $500,000 vacations and is paying for a very expensive education for a family member. Justice Neil Gorsuch has a property scandal linked to a suspicious purchase around the time of his confirmation. Chief Justice Roberts’ wife has been making millions of dollars recruiting attorneys for firms who argue cases before the Supreme Court.
There have been significant calls for creating stronger ethics standards for the Supreme Court. Adhering to some sort of ethics would be an important improvement, but it is hard to escape that the Supreme Court has a long and sordid history of upholding white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy.
These problems are not unique to the Supreme Court — at every level, our courts uphold inequality, sometimes refusing to enforce laws or court decisions attempting to address inequality. One example is in the work we’ve tried to do as a society to reduce domestic violence and sexual assault.
One tool to keep survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault safer are protection orders. Protection orders are a non-criminal tool that orders one person to not contact another and to stay away from the protected person and their home or work.
If the orders are followed, the order has minimal impact on the restrained person’s life. It is only if the orders are violated that a restrained person can face criminal charges.
One consequence of a domestic violence protection order can be the removal of firearms. There is a wealth of research about how deadly it can be to leave an abusive relationship, a risk that increases with the presence of guns.
Many judges resist entering orders of protection, especially orders to surrender weapons. The problem was significant enough that our legislature made major revisions to the protection order laws to try and overcome the judicial resistance to applying the law.
The unfortunate reality is that many judges will still find ways to resist implementing the laws. Some of the most egregious denials may get overturned on appeal, but that is a long process that leaves someone vulnerable while the appeal is pursued.
We cannot continue to go through the work of passing laws that some judges willfully refuse to follow. In Washington, we have an ability to hold judges accountable through elections, but we lack knowledge. We need a robust court watch system that monitors how judges treat the people before them and whether the judge is following the law.
We need ethics rules to ensure fairness, real and perceived, and we need a system to keep us informed to have judicial accountability.
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Read more of the May 17-23, 2023 issue.