May 26, 2022 – Justices on the United States Supreme Court and all federal judges must promptly report financial disclosures and make them available in a publicly accessible database according to a bill passed by Congress and signed into law this month by President Joe Biden.
The Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act will bring reforms recommended by leading judicial experts including UH Law Center Professor Renee Knake Jefferson.
Jefferson appeared before the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary in October 2021 to testify about the Wall Street Journal investigation that exposed judges presiding over cases in which they or their family members owned stock in violation of a federal law, 28 U.S.C. § 455. A copy of Jefferson’s written testimony is available at https://judiciary.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=4752.
Jefferson called for “the federal judiciary to shift from a culture of silence to a culture of compliance.” She proposed reforms including greater reporting and transparency when judges face conflicts of interest or other prejudicial influences on their decision-making.
“I am pleased to see this important step toward judicial accountability with Congress passing and Biden signing into law the Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act,” Jefferson said. “But more can and should be done.”
Jefferson has also asked Congress to hold the Supreme Court of the United States accountable to the same ethics rules that apply to all federal judges. “All federal judges are governed by a code of ethics except for nine—the justices of the Supreme Court,” said Jefferson. “Because the Supreme Court has declined to adopt a code for itself, Congress can and should support legislation calling for it to do so. Congress has authority under the U.S. Constitution to require the Supreme Court to adopt a code of ethics and to specify particular topics that must be covered, for example financial investments, personal bias, prior work on the matter in controversy, and other potential conflicts or influences.” To date, the Supreme Court has yet to move forward in adopting its own ethics code.
Jefferson holds the Joanne and Larry Doherty Chair in Legal Ethics and is director of Law Center Outcomes and Assessments at the University of Houston. She earned her J.D. at the University of Chicago Law School, and teaches Constitutional Law, Professional Responsibility, and a seminar on Gender, Power, Law & Leadership at the Law Center. She is a Fulbright recipient and an elected member of the American Law Institute. Jefferson’s work is regularly featured in national media, including CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, Politico, National Public Radio, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.
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