Scandal-plagued SCOTUS Should Take Ethics Lessons From PA Courts

A flood of ethics scandals and a plummeting approval rate for the U.S. Supreme Court. It's times like these that Pennsylvanians should have some gratitude for our own state courts.

Let’s imagine the Philadelphia 76ers are fighting their way through the most competitive NBA playoffs in years. Joel Embiid, James Harden, and company manage to make a daring run to the finals, carrying the hopes of their fans on their backs. It’s game seven, and with just minutes left on the clock, the referees make a controversial call penalizing the Sixers and basically handing the championship to the rival team. 

Now imagine that, a few days later, word gets out that the referees spent the weekend before the big game partying for free on a private yacht with several of the Sixers’ rival players and their coach. It would be a sports scandal for the ages – confidence in referees and the final outcome of the series would be completely undermined. The referees in question would face the most severe of investigations for wrongdoing and likely would never officiate another NBA game in their lives. So, if fans, players, and coaches wouldn’t stand for such sketchy behavior in the game of basketball, why are we tolerating it from judges sitting on the most powerful court in the country – judges who have a direct say over which of our constitutional rights and freedoms we should be allowed to keep? 

In April, Pennsylvanians and many millions of our fellow Americans from all around the country were appalled by news of a massive ethics scandal involving Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. There were private jet trips, superyacht cruises, and luxury vacations over the course of two decades, all on the dime of a conservative billionaire donor – and Thomas had failed to disclose any of it. That would have been bad enough, but it was just the tip of the iceberg. New revelations in recent weeks further exposed glaring conflicts of interest from Justice Thomas as well as Justice Neil Gorsuch, sticking a fork once and for all in any semblance of fairness or transparency the Court had so desperately clung to until then. 

It’s not hyperbole to say that the Court’s conservative justices could scarcely have done more to lose public confidence if they were trying their hardest. All the scandals and unpopular, anti-democratic rulings from the justices could serve as a de facto blueprint for how to systematically blow up trust in the judiciary and turn it into an extension of the Republican Party.

The fact of the matter is that the recent SCOTUS scandals are unacceptable and unbefitting of any judge. Americans deserve better. We deserve ethics reform for the high court, and we want it now. 

Unlike U.S. Supreme Court justices, Pennsylvania’s state judges are governed by a strict code of ethical conduct, and we have an entire judicial conduct board to make sure that code is enforced. Pennsylvanians expect to get a fair shake when it’s their day in court, and the only way to guarantee that is to ensure that our judges are only beholden to our state Constitution, not wealthy donors or partisan interest groups. Here in Pennsylvania, we understand the importance of keeping judges accountable by ensuring they don’t hear cases when they might have a conflict of interest or even the perception of a conflict. Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose. And when it comes to judges, who are the last firewall against attacks on our rights and freedoms, trust means everything. 

In the face of the recent ethics scandals, the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t come clean or tried to make good. Just the opposite. When the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Supreme Court ethics last week, the Court’s justices refused to testify. That’s inexcusable. Supreme Court justices are not above the law; they should be held to the same standards as Pennsylvania judges and other government officials.  

At a time when the Supreme Court nears rock bottom, Pennsylvanians should feel fortunate that we have a system in place to protect the fairness of our own state courts. And if Supreme Court justices ever decide to get serious about making amends and repairing their tattered reputation, they could learn a lesson or two from the judicial system right here in the Commonwealth. 

Go Sixers!

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Kadida Kenner

Kadida Kenner is the CEO of the New Pennsylvania Project, a statewide voting rights organization with a primary focus on voter registration, civic engagement and mobilization, and co-chair of Why Courts Matter — Pennsylvania, a campaign educating Pennsylvanians about the importance of the independence of both the federal and state courts. She writes from Chester County.

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