February 17, 2021

Whitehouse, Graham Call on Federal Judiciary to Strengthen Judicial Ethics Standards

Washington, DC – Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) released today a letter sent to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts calling on the Court to bring judicial financial disclosure requirements in line with other branches of government. Following passage of the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, Congress and the executive branch implemented strong disclosure requirements for officials’ outside income, gifts, and reimbursements. The judiciary, for its part, has adopted significantly less stringent guidelines, and has failed to make information on judicial branch disclosures readily available to the public. But even those rules do not apply to the justices of the Supreme Court. As a result, our nation’s highest judicial officers “are subject to the lowest standards of transparency of any senior officials across the federal government,” Whitehouse and Graham note.

The senators ask Roberts whether there are plans to strengthen ethics rules and make the judiciary more transparent in its ethics reporting. If the Court does not act on those priorities, “a legislative solution may be in order,” Whitehouse and Graham write.

Text of the senators’ letter is below. A PDF is available here.


The Honorable John G. Roberts
Chief Justice
Supreme Court of the United States
One First St. NE
Washington, D.C. 20543-0001

The Honorable Scott S. Harris
Clerk of the Court
Supreme Court of the United States
One First St. NE
Washington, D.C. 20543-0001

Dear Mr. Chief Justice and Mr. Harris:

The Ethics in Government Act of 1978, as amended by the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, requires senior government officials—including the President and Vice President, officers and high-level employees of the Executive Branch, Members of Congress, and judicial officers—to annually disclose outside income, gifts, and reimbursements. The executive branch and both chambers of Congress have issued implementing regulations and/or rules that require disclosures beyond what the statute requires.[1] For example, executive and legislative branch disclosure rules require descriptions (and, in Congress’s case, documentation) of reimbursed expenditures; narrowly construe the Ethics in Government Act’s “personal hospitality” exception; restrict officials’ receipt of certain gifts and travel; and require prompt online publication of, and easy public access to, financial disclosures.

The Judicial Conference Committee on Codes of Conduct has also issued financial disclosure regulations, but these are significantly less stringent than the executive and legislative branch guidelines. Even those requirements, however, do not apply to the Justices of the Supreme Court. As a result, the Justices of our highest court are subject to the lowest standards of transparency of any senior officials across the federal government.

We believe a legislative solution may be in order to bring the judiciary’s financial disclosure requirements in line with other branches of government if the Court does not address the issue itself. Please be good enough to provide answers to the following inquiries:

  1. What plans, if any, does the Court have to adopt a code of ethics, or to bring its gift, travel, and hospitality restrictions and disclosure policies in line with those of the executive branch and Congress? If it has no such plans, what justifies the Court having a lower disclosure standard than the other branches of government?
  2. Does the Court (or do the individual Justices) maintain records of emoluments in the nature of gifts, travel, hospitality, and reimbursements received by members of the Court? Do such records include the dollar value and descriptions of the emoluments?
  3. What steps does the Court take to identify or prevent the Justices’ receipt of gifts, travel, or hospitality from those who may have business before the Court?
  4. For purposes of the Justices’ disclosures, how does the Court define the term “personal hospitality” that appears in the Ethics in Government Act? See 5a U.S.C. §102(a)(2)(A) (exempting from disclosure any gifts in the form of “food, lodging, or entertainment received as personal hospitality”).
  5. What plans, if any, does the Court have to make the Justices’ financial disclosure reports more accessible to the public?

Thank you for your consideration of our views and your attention to this matter.

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