One justice explained absence from case. Another didn’t. Ethics questions vex Supreme Court

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Senate Supreme Court Ethics

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen May 2 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

WASHINGTON — One Supreme Court justice explained her absence from a case. One justice didn’t.

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The difference shows how difficult forging consensus over even small steps on ethics can be at the Supreme Court, which faces new calls to adopt an ethics code following revelations about undisclosed gifts from a Republican megadonor to Justice Clarence Thomas.

Last week, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged the court needs to do more to reassure a skeptical public that the justices take their ethical obligations seriously.

Though the justices have been resistant to a binding code of ethical standards, all nine signed a “statement on ethics principles and practices” issued in late April that promised at least some small additional disclosure when one or more among them opts not to take part in a case.

A justice “may provide a summary explanation of a recusal decision,” the statement reads, a change from the standard practice of saying nothing at all.

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A week ago, Justice Elena Kagan became the first member of the court to explain herself, indicating that her previous employment in President Barack Obama’s administration kept her out of an appeal, rejected by the court, from a death row inmate in Florida.

But on Tuesday, when the court turned away an appeal from energy companies, Justice Samuel Alito said nothing about why he was not involved.

Alito did not immediately respond to a request from The Associated Press for comment, sent through the court’s public information office.

The probable reason for Alito’s decision is not hard to find in his latest financial disclosure report: He owns between $15,000 and $50,000 in stock in Phillips 66, one of the companies that appealed.

Criticism of the court stems principally from a series of reports by the nonprofit investigative journalism organization ProPublica about undisclosed gifts including payment of a relative’s school tuition and luxury trips provided to Thomas by Harlan Crow, a Dallas billionaire.

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