A recent disclosure by ProPublica about Justice Clarence Thomas reveals a high court with low ethical standards. When you become a Supreme Court justice, it seems, among the things you are given to join the club is a pair of ethical blinders to have in common with your colleagues. ProPublica revealed that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has for many years received lavish gifts of travel and lodging, essentially free vacations he could not afford. Some carry a value of half a million dollars. This puts him in an asymmetrical relationship with a megadonor to conservative causes with numerous business interests.
Thomas says these are family friendships, not business relationships. But, really, does he think he would be invited along if he were not on the Supreme Court? And wouldn’t he be less inclined to make decisions, like in tax cases, that would upset the donor? These vacations also give extended access to the donor’s buddies to influence him along with regularly treating him to the benefits of income inequality.
Thomas says colleagues advised him that there was no need to disclose these gifts even though they were lavish and would naturally put a person into a position of indebtedness and create or reinforce the inherent bias that comes so easily with mega wealth. If so, his colleagues need retraining in professional ethics along with him. When you consult someone about ethics, you are best to consult with people who are least likely to tell you what you want to hear. Thomas also doesn’t think that he needs to recuse himself from cases where his wife, a conservative activist, has had a hand because he thinks he can be fair minded, which he should know he cannot be the judge of.
Displaying a disturbing lack of wisdom, Chief Justice John Roberts has said that the high court does not need ethical oversight because they are such good people. Right. Where has he been when all the research came out on self-serving bias and group think? Knowledge of those factors is now so widespread that he looks naïve or lame to think the average person would be reassured by what he says. Individuals and organizations cannot police themselves and certainly not without codes of conduct written by others. Human beings, however honorable, just don’t behave that way.
When I was the director of a private mental health clinic, I would never hire someone who was not a member of a professional association with a code of ethics that could expel them for violating it. It is just wise practice to put yourself in a position to be answerable like that. Furthermore, we had to refresh our knowledge and use of the code of ethics every two years and how it applies to difficult oor especially tempting situations. Believe me, we all drift. Even the Dalai Lama, as honorable as he is, was caught on video kissing a boy on the lips and asking him to suck his tongue, claiming he was trying to be funny.
Separation of powers should not mean no standards of professional conduct, though I heard enough licensed mental health professionals claim their license allowed them to operate independently without ethical accountability. A license to practice doesn’t mean that, nor should separation of powers mean that. The Supreme Court should be a role model for promoting and following ethical standards, not being above it all. We should not trust a person, an institution or a business that think they can ethically self-regulate.