Strictly Scrutinizing The Ethics Code | Crooked Media
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November 13, 2023
What A Day
Strictly Scrutinizing The Ethics Code

In This Episode

  • The Supreme Court announced its first-ever ethics code on Monday after pressure from Congress and the public. But it’s unclear how the code – signed by all nine justices – will be enforced. We’re joined by Leah Litman, co-host of Crooked’s Strict Scrutiny podcast, to make sense of it all.
  • And in headlines: thousands of people fled Gaza’s largest hospital as fighting continues outside the facility, protesters and police clashed at Monday’s Cop City protests, and Chuck E. Cheese is getting rid of animatronics in nearly all of its locations around the country.


Show Notes:



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Josie Duffy Rice: It’s Tuesday, November 14th. I’m Josie Duffy Rice.


Tre’vell Anderson: And I’m Tre’vell Anderson and this is What a Day, the pod that you can give all your gifts to. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Taylor Swift recently asked fans in Argentina not to throw her gifts on stage. So, you know what, we’ll take them. We love gifts. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yes. I don’t care what you’re celebrating. Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Bastille Day. I like gifts for everything. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I don’t even know what a traditional Bastille Day gift is, but sign me up. [laughter]


Tre’vell Anderson: On today’s show, protesters and police clashed at yesterday’s Cop City protests. Plus, a fire closed a major freeway in L.A. indefinitely. 


Josie Duffy Rice: But first, the Supreme Court announced yesterday that it adopted its first ever ethics code. All nine justices signed on to the new code. Now, the fact that we even got a code from these justices isn’t actually that surprising. It means that the pressure from Congress and the public to create one worked. But what’s actually in the code? We wanted to talk to someone who might know a little bit more. So Tre’vell, I spoke with someone who helped me make a bit more sense of this mess. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And I think I know who it is. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yes, it was Clarence Thomas himself. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Oh, wow. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Just kidding. Uh. It was our dear friend of the pod, Leah Litman, from the Strict Scrutiny podcast. Leah is ten times better, in my opinion, than Clarence Thomas. I talked with her earlier and said that one day we will have her on the show to talk about good news coming out of the Supreme Court. 


Leah Litman: Well, this is like good news pretending to be good news. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. 


Leah Litman: That isn’t really good news. So like– 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah yeah. 


Leah Litman: We’re kind of there. 


Josie Duffy Rice: We’re kind of there. We’re getting there. Okay. So tell us how you really felt about this new code of conduct. 


Leah Litman: Yeah. So we were actually recording an episode and saw that the Supreme Court adopted a code of ethics, and we were like, great, everything’s fixed. We can stop the podcast now. Um. [laughter] And then I went and read it, and it turns out it’s not actually much of a code of ethics at all. 


Josie Duffy Rice: What did you find so problematic about this code of ethics? 


Leah Litman: So first is just how it depicts what it’s doing. The intro to the entire Code of Ethics is like, Well, there’s nothing really new here. We just thought we would write down these awesome general principles we’ve all been mostly following anyways, so it turns out they think everything they’ve been doing is pretty much fine and they’ve written a bunch of rules that permit all of that, that’s one thing. And then second is, you know, it contains a bunch of super general terms like things that raise questions about a justice’s impartiality. And I don’t know how those are going to be defined. Based on their past practice, I have a pretty good idea, and I don’t think it’s going to be defined in ways that actually police the justices conduct and it’s unenforceable. Right. Like, let’s say, I think Sam Alito is participating in a case in which there are serious questions about his impartiality. What am I supposed to do, scream into the void? Send a letter in the mail? Like there’s nothing in the ethics code, right, that makes it enforceable.


Josie Duffy Rice: Well, I mean, one thing that’s really funny about what you just said is like, what terms mean and how you enforce things is like a major concern of the Supreme Court. So it’s particularly noticeable, right, that there’s so much vague here. And like you said, one of the big criticisms that nowhere in the code of ethics does it say how this is being enforced. So what are your thoughts on that and what do you think they could have done to make this better or actually have some teeth? 


Leah Litman: I think it was always going to be a tough sell for the court to do anything that would actually bring in anyone else to enforce, you know, rules governing the court. They think of themselves as like, we are the law. And if they are the law right, then they are the law’s interpreters, the law enforcers and everything else. So in an ideal world, it would have been amazing had they created some sort of like independent counsel or inspector general position that is not actually housed in the Supreme Court that would have authority to actually enforce the ethics code, you know, if someone wasn’t actually following it, you know, maybe they don’t want to give every individual the ability to file suit if one of the justices is violating the ethics code, fine. But at least create an independent office that’s going to be in a position to actually look at whether you’re following the rules that you just wrote down rather than just leaving it up to themselves to say, basically, trust us, we’re doing great. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. Speaking of our dear friend Clarence Thomas, uh so let’s talk a little bit about how this code came about and especially became really relevant. The ProPublica reporting earlier this year on Justice Clarence Thomas has 20 plus years worth of luxury travel from, you know, his BFF/sugar daddy/I don’t know, what do we call him? Harlan Crow. And then Democrats then penned that letter to Chief Justice Roberts and said like, hey, we need a code of conduct immediately. Can you tell us a little bit more about what position that put Justice Roberts in and how he was pushed into making this a reality and kind of the dynamics going on with him as chief justice here? 


Leah Litman: Yeah, I mean, the Supreme Court’s approval ratings are in the tank. Right. And polling has made clear that everyone realizes that all of the stuff that ProPublica has revealed about how the court is working raises serious concerns among the public, you know, about the court’s ethics, about corruption and whatnot. The chief justice you know, Chief Justice Roberts is one of the best politicians in the country. And so I think he realizes that the court has an image problem and he loves to do things. And he’s very good at doing things that are designed to improve the court’s image without substantively altering what the court is doing. And I think this ethics code is really of a piece with that, because they all can look at the world around them, read the polls, read the stories, look at the commentary, and realize that this issue is getting real traction and their institutional stature is plummeting as a result. And so they come up with this ethics code, you know, because that kind of undermines, you know, some of the claims like, oh, the Supreme Court doesn’t have an ethics code, but the lower court judges do. And so they come up with an ethics code. And it just turns out their ethics code stinks. 


Josie Duffy Rice: So do you think that there is any hope for getting this code of conduct to a place where it has a little bit more substance, it really kind of has enforcement, it really does kind of narrow the boundaries of what’s acceptable behavior by these justices? 


Leah Litman: It is difficult for me to imagine a world where the current court with the justices, you know, including the ones I’ve named, wake up one day and decide, you know, what, all of this conduct actually did raise serious questions about impartiality. Let’s write an enforceable code that prevents me from getting like a free luxury RV from one billionaire and like, twenty decades of free private jet rides and a house for my mother that’s been renovated, you know, from other billionaires. So it’s really difficult for me to imagine that, you know, the justices just wake up one day and decide like, let’s have an enforceable, meaningful ethics code. I hold out hope that people can change. And yet and yet I just don’t see Ginni Thomas waking up one day and saying, you know, maybe I shouldn’t be texting the chief of staff to Donald Trump about efforts to overturn the election that are likely to end up at the Supreme Court. I just don’t see that happening. So in light of that world, I think meaningful ethics reform will come from outside the court, and that’s just the way it’s going to be. 


Josie Duffy Rice: That was my conversation with Leah Litman. You can hear more of her take on this code of ethics, along with the other Strict Scrutiny hosts on their new episode dropping next Monday. And that is the latest for now. We will be back after some ads. [music break]. 




Tre’vell Anderson: Let’s get to some headlines. 


[sung] Headlines. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Starting with an update on the latest in the Israel-Hamas war. Thousands of people have fled Gaza’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa, as fighting continues outside the facility. Hundreds of patients remain inside as well. The hospital has been without fuel and water for days, and the World Health Organization said that the hospital, quote, “is not functioning as a hospital anymore.” The Gaza Health Ministry said at least 32 patients at the hospital, including three babies, died in the last three days. Israeli troops encircled Al-Shifa for days. And yesterday, Israeli military vehicles approached the gates of the hospital, according to Gazan health officials. Israel claims that Hamas uses hospitals and tunnels beneath them as cover for its fighters, including Al-Shifa. Hamas has denied that claim. Meanwhile, stateside, here’s what President Biden said to reporters yesterday when asked if he’s expressed concerns to Israel about the hospitals in Gaza. 


[clip of President Joe Biden] Well, uh you know, I have not been reluctant in expressing my concerns what’s going on. And it’s my hope and expectation that there will be less intrusive action relative to the hospital. 


Tre’vell Anderson: He then continued to say, quote, “The hospital must be protected.” 


Josie Duffy Rice: President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are set to meet tomorrow in San Francisco for the first time in a year. The two will be meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, or APEC, and they’re expected to discuss a wide range of topics, including trade and US-China relations. Officials said President Biden is prepared to bring up topics such as election interference, Taiwan, the war on Ukraine and the war between Israel and Hamas. And the two leaders will also discuss the, quote, “continued importance of maintaining open lines of communication.” According to the White House. No major breakthroughs are expected at tomorrow’s meeting, but we’ll be sure to keep you updated on what comes out of the talks. 


Tre’vell Anderson: We told you yesterday that local organizers in Atlanta were preparing a big nonviolent community action against Cop City, the $90 million dollar police training complex slated to be built in Atlanta’s South River Forest. And we’re happy to report that the community showed up and showed out yesterday. Take a listen to Community Movement Builders founder Kamau Franklin, the Atlanta activist you heard from on yesterday’s show. Here’s what he had to say during yesterday’s demonstration. 


[clip of Kamau Franklin] It is not a time for cowardice. You cannot close your eyes to the terror of policing that happens in this country. And you cannot deny and cannot be silent on the capitalist economics and the system that controls all of our people across the world. [cheers]


Tre’vell Anderson: More than 400 protesters took to the streets to join the people’s stop work order on Cop City and marched toward the facility’s construction site chanting, Stop Cop City and Viva viva Tortuguita. You’ll remember that Tortuguita was the local activist who was fatally shot by Atlanta police during a peaceful anti-Cop City protest in January. Atlanta riot police deployed tear gas and flash bang grenades on yesterday’s crowd in an effort to break it up. But no arrests were made and local organizers, thankfully, did not report any serious injuries. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Atlanta cops doing as Atlanta cops do. Just throwing some flash bang grenades in the middle of protesters. Healthy, normal behavior. L.A. traffic could get a lot worse for residents over the next few weeks or even months, as city, state and federal officials work to repair the ten freeway. It’s a section of road that averages over 260,000 drivers daily. But it was shut down on Saturday after a fire broke out in a yard full of wooden pallets and sanitizer directly under the freeway. According to California Governor Gavin Newsom, an investigation revealed that the blaze was caused by arson. Long time Angelenos will remember that the last time the ten shut down was in 1994 after the Northridge earthquake. It took officials two months to repair the road after that disaster. And L.A. Mayor Karen Bass held a press conference yesterday warning residents to prepare for similar long term delays. Take a listen. 


[clip of LA Mayor Karen Bass] As much as traffic is a challenge for all of us in our city. There will be no time like this when we will need to come together and all cooperate until the freeway is rebuilt. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Not looking forward to how this will impact my commute. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Because the traffic’s already bad. This won’t help. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I’m feeling relieved I will not be in L.A. this Christmas. I’m sorry. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Ugh. 


Josie Duffy Rice: For everybody else on our team. 


Tre’vell Anderson: [laugh] Not great. And finally, we’ll end on some good news. From now on, your pizza parties can be human only. Chuck E. Cheese is getting rid of animatronics in nearly all of its locations around the country. The chain has used the robots to fuel nightmares since 1977, but it recently announced that it’s dismantling them as part of a restaurant revamp. In their place will be activities like dance floors and trampoline zones. But for parents who think scaring kids helps build character and give them a healthy fear of technology, worry not Chuck E. Cheese himself and Munch’s Make Believe Band will still be around to jam, but just in one location. Like Usher doing a residency in Vegas, the animatronics will do a permanent residency at the company’s restaurant in the L.A. neighborhood of Northridge. Here’s a clip from the robotically produced press conference the company held with the animatronics themselves. 


[clip of fake news reporter] When are you going to start performing in California? 


[clip of character from Munch’s Make Believe Band] Why not right now? 


[clip of Chuck E Cheese] Let’s do it. 


[clip of character from Munch’s Make Believe Band] Yeah. 


[clip of Chuck E Cheese] Here’s one of our favorites. Hit it! 


[clip of character from Munch’s Make Believe Band] We can feel the magic, now that you’re here. 


[clip of character from Munch’s Make Believe Band] Together we’ll make the good times right here. 


[clip of character from Munch’s Make Believe Band] When it comes to keeping the groove, we’re Munch’s Make Believe Band–


Tre’vell Anderson: Chuck E. Cheese sounds a little different than what I remember. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I was going to say it–


Tre’vell Anderson: Um. 


Josie Duffy Rice: –sounds basically the same, [laughter] like I can’t get over the nineties vibes. [laughter] I do feel that we should mention that when we were talking about this earlier, one of our team members, Bill Lancz. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Mm hmm. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Broke the news that he was the main repair person for the Chuck E. Cheese animatronics in like the greater Toledo area for ten years. So now I feel kind of sad. 


Tre’vell Anderson: You should feel sad. This is the end of an era. Okay. I know that–


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. 


Tre’vell Anderson: –there’s so many folks who have perhaps some trauma. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Me. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Inflicted on them. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Me. 


Tre’vell Anderson: By these these robot animals, but I always had a great time, if I say so myself. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Look, you were like my nightmare as a kid, because [laughter] there’s just picture after picture of me hiding under tables, at Chuck E. Cheese’s birthday parties. 


Tre’vell Anderson: You survived. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I was thrilled that these are gone until I learned about Bill’s expertise as a animatronics fixer is now less relevant. 


Tre’vell Anderson: See? And now some person who was doing what Bill used to do is out of a job because the robots are only going to be in Northridge. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Well, Bill, you might need to make a commute. [laughter] They might need you. Chuck E. Cheese if you’re listening, pay Bill a lot of money to come help you fix your animatronics. 


Tre’vell Anderson: To come back. 


Josie Duffy Rice: To come back. [laughter]


Tre’vell Anderson: And those are the headlines. 




Josie Duffy Rice: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe. Leave a review, send us Taylor’s gifts and tell your friends to listen. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And if you’re into reading and not just watching animatronic press conferences like me, What a Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I’m Josie Duffy Rice. 


[spoken together] And pizza party at Chuck E. Cheese’s. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Government name, Charles Entertainment Cheese. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Now, you didn’t have to put all his business out there like that. 


Josie Duffy Rice: If your middle name was Entertainment, wouldn’t you want people to know? 


Tre’vell Anderson: Perhaps. [laughing]


Josie Duffy Rice: Josie Entertainment Duffy Rice is what I shall be going by from this point forward. [laughter] [music break]


Tre’vell Anderson: What a Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our show’s producer is Itxy Quintanilla. Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf are our associate producers. And our showrunner is Leo Duran. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka. [music break]