New York Times — July 14, 2023
I joined the federal bench in 1984, some years before any of the justices currently on the Supreme Court. Throughout my career, I have been bound and guided by a written code of conduct, backed by a committee of colleagues I can call on for advice. In fact, I checked with a member of that committee before writing this essay.
A few times in my nearly 40 years on the bench, complaints have been filed against me. This is not uncommon for a federal judge. So far, none have been found to have merit, but all of these complaints have been processed with respect, and I have paid close attention to them. . . .
The recent descriptions of the behavior of some of our justices and particularly their attempts to defend their conduct have not just raised my eyebrows; they’ve raised the whole top of my head. Lavish, no-cost vacations? Hypertechnical arguments about how a free private airplane flight is a kind of facility? A justice’s spouse prominently involved in advocating on issues before the court without the justice’s recusal? Repeated omissions in mandatory financial disclosure statements brushed under the rug as inadvertent? A justice’s taxpayer-financed staff reportedly helping to promote her books? Private school tuition for a justice’s family member covered by a wealthy benefactor? Wow.
Although the exact numbers fluctuate because of vacancies, the core of our federal judiciary comprises roughly 540 magistrate judges, 670 district judges, 180 appeals court judges and nine Supreme Court justices — fewer than 1,500 men and women in a country of more than 330 million people and 3.8 million square miles. Much depends on this small cohort’s acute sense of smell, its instinctive, uncompromising integrity and its appearance of integrity. If reports are true, some of our justices are, sadly, letting us down.
To me, this feels personal. For the country, it feels ominous. What in the world has happened to the Supreme Court’s nose?
Judge Ponsor is a senior judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.