-By Mike sacks
January 5, 2012- WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John Roberts used his annual year-end report to defend his colleagues' integrity, but that defense did not move prominent critics clamoring for the justices to abide by the same ethical rules as other federal judges do.
In the 16-page report, released on Saturday, Roberts rebuffed calls for the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt the Code of Conduct for United States Judges — which binds lower courts but not the high court — and pushed back against partisan demands that Justices Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan recuse themselves from what may be the term's most controversial conflict, the health care cases slated for oral argument in March.
"I have complete confidence in the capability of my colleagues to determine when recusal is warranted," Roberts wrote.
The chief justice might hope that would be the end of the criticism; he likely knows better.
On Dec. 22, Nan Aron, president of the liberal advocacy group Alliance for Justice, had sent an open letter to Roberts urging him "to address questions that have arisen about the ethical standards governing the Supreme Court." As examples, she cited Justices Antonin Scalia and Thomas' appearance as honored guests and speakers at a recent Federalist Society dinner that doubled as a fundraiser. The Code of Conduct says a federal judge "may not be a speaker, a guest of honor, or featured on the program" of a fundraiser.
"The simplest, most direct approach" to clarify the justices' ethical obligations, Aron concluded, "is for the Court itself to make an explicit public declaration that the Code of Conduct governs justices' behavior and to formally adopt it as the Court's own rule."
Speaking to HuffPost on Tuesday, Aron said that "we did get what we wanted" — at least partly.
It's clear that the chief justice felt he couldn't ignore a clamor for discussion of these issues anymore," said Aron.
But Roberts engaged with the Alliance for Justice and others only to tell them that their "observation rests on misconceptions about both the Supreme Court and the Code."
"Because the Code was developed for the benefit of the lower federal courts, it does not adequately answer some of the ethical considerations unique to the Supreme Court," wrote Roberts. Still, he explained that the justices do consult the code as a "starting point and key source of guidance," even if they are not bound to comply with that guidance.