Justice Brett Kavanaugh said Thursday that the Supreme Court is working on “concrete steps” to address ethics issues at the high court amid an array of recent news stories on justices’ travel and relationships with political donors.
Appearing before an audience of judges and lawyers during a judicial conference in Ohio, Kavanaugh noted that Chief Justice John Roberts had pledged in May to assure the public that the court was committed to adhering to the highest standards of conduct.
“The chief justice spoke about that in May and said that we are continuing to work on those issues and that is accurate,” Kavanaugh told the audience. “We are continuing to work on those issues and I’m hopeful that there will be some concrete steps taken soon on that.”
In a conversation with Judges Jeffrey S. Sutton and Stephanie Dawkins Davis – who both sit on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals – Kavanaugh did not address specific allegations of late. ProPublica, the Associated Press and other outlets have reported on issues concerning Supreme Court justices’ unreported luxury travel on private jets, lavish vacations and the use of taxpayer-funded staff to perform tasks related to book ventures.
Speaking generally, Kavanaugh said the court consists of “nine public servants, who are hardworking, and care a lot about the court and care a lot about the judiciary.”
“We respect the institution and want that respect for the institution to be shared by the American people” he said, even if the public ultimately disagrees with the court’s opinions.
“To the extent that we can increase confidence, we are working on that,” Kavanaugh said.
Kavanaugh’s statements go slightly further than a speech he made in July when he suggested he did not want to go beyond Roberts’ statements on the issue.
The comments come weeks before a new term is set to start and critics, including Democrats in Congress, are pressuring the justices to develop a code of conduct specific to the justices themselves.
In a statement signed last term by the full court, the justices reiterated that they voluntarily follow guidelines that apply to lower court judges.
But it’s done little to appease critics of the court who say the justices need to do more to ensure better transparency concerning their lives off the bench. Despite criticism, the justices have refused – so far – to be bound by an official ethics code specific to the high court.
“It is an institution of law and not of politics, not of partisanship,” Kavanaugh said of the court, adding that the key to judging is to be “consistent in your principles regardless of who the parties are in the particular case.”
To make his point, as he often does, Kavanaugh turned to a sports analogy.
“One umpire might have a narrow strike zone, one umpire might have a bigger strike zone,” he said. “That’s fine as long as the umpire is consistent calling it the same way for the Red Sox and the Yankees – you don’t want an umpire favoring the Red Sox in every call and going against the Yankees in every call,” Kavanaugh stressed.
He said that judges should set their own set of constitutional principles and then “call it the same way” whether it “hurts the Democratic party, hurts the Republican party or whether it hurts business or the environmental group.”
This story has been updated with additional information.