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Government Ethics

Two justices defend being part of a case involving a company where they own stock

Justices Steven Breyer and Samuel Alito say they did not need to recuse themselves from a case involving an aerospace firm owned by United Technologies, in which both are invested.

They issued a rare joint public statement defending their decision Monday, highlighting how Supreme Court ethical standards are totally unregulated and will likely remain so, because Congress has come up short for years on legislation that would compel the justices to create a formalized standard of professional conduct for themselves. Such language is in the political and ethics overhaul passed by the Democratic House, dubbed HR 1, which has been consigned to oblivion in the Republican Senate.

The court declined to hear the case, Feng v. Komenda, which involves a company now owned by United Technologies. According to their most recent financial disclosures, Breyer owns up to $250,000 worth of UT stock and Alito as much as $50,000.

The stock ownership conflict was first disclosed by Fix the Court, which advocates for judicial ethical transparency. Judges on lower courts are barred from participating in any case involving a company in which they hold even a single share. But the court is not covered by those rules. Also Rockwell Collins, the company purchased by United Technologies, essentially said it was not going to respond to the workplace discrimination claim at the heart of the case.

"The court has a diligent conflict checking process but without a response there would be no way to find out there was a conflict," the two justices said.

"Whether or not they see these non-recusals as errors, Roberts, Breyer and Alito have yet to explain why they continue to own individual stocks, which cause dozens of unnecessary disqualifications each year," Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, said in response that also referred to Chief Justice John Roberts. "Taking a step back, it's also a bit odd that corporate litigants can simply shield a potential conflict that works in their favor by not filing a response to a petition."

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