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Comparing Judicial Ethics: A Tale of Two Systems – The U.S. Supreme Court and Turkish Constitutional Court

Don’t let the title confuse you.

When you compare the subjects, it will be easy to understand who is the ‘judge’ and who is the ‘dog of politics’.

While we discuss the genocide in Gaza, President Erdoğan’s judicial coup, and MHP leader Bahçeli’s statements about shutting down the Constitutional Court, a historic development occurred in the USA.

For the first time in the 234-year history of the American Supreme Court, a ‘list of ethical rules’ for judges was published. Reading these ‘ethical rules’ announced on the court’s website and thinking about the scandals in Turkey, you can’t help but say, “Yes, there are judges and there are judges!”

But what are these rules and why are they important?

Before answering this question, let me give you a brief background on the U.S. Supreme Court. It only shares the name with Turkey’s Constitutional Court.

For instance, start from here;

The photo on the left is of Zühtü Arslan, the head of Turkey’s Constitutional Court.

He is almost bowing down in front of President Erdoğan. It can also be considered a photo confirming Doğu Perinçek’s statement, “law, justice is the dog of politics,” an ally of the Erdoğan regime.

The second photo shows the relationship between the members of the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. President. The entire congress and guests stand and applaud the U.S. president delivering the traditional ‘State of the Union’ address.

However, the 9 members of the Constitutional Court do not. They do not stand up or applaud to avoid casting a shadow on their impartiality.

Supreme Court members are among the most influential figures in the U.S. system. Some political commentators believe they are more influential than the president or congress.

They are almost the backbone of the system.

Their decisions bind everyone, and they cannot be removed from office until they die or resign voluntarily.

In Turkey, lower courts don’t have the luxury of saying, “I don’t care!” You must comply with the Supreme Court decisions, even if you are the president.

Presidents nominate law graduates and judges, but they need Senate approval to take office.

During the Senate approval stage, the Supreme Court nominee answers questions in front of the senators. They are interrogated in front of cameras, but once elected, they cannot be removed again.

It’s not a place that can be shaped according to the president’s whims.

Of course, presidents may have such intentions. However, some presidents don’t even have a vacancy to fill during their term. It’s a common belief in the American public that appointing a judge to the Supreme Court is a president’s most privileged job.

A judge’s decision can affect the country’s political and social life.

For example, the U.S. Supreme Court does not consider burning the American flag a criminal offense but a form of ‘freedom of expression.’

Another decision forbids collective prayers led by teachers in schools, similar to our national anthem, so non-Christian students are not forced to pray.

We all know this sentence from American movies: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in court. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand your rights?”

This is also a Supreme Court ruling.

The point is that for an arrest to be legitimate, the arrested person must say, ‘I understand my rights.’ If they don’t speak English or have a health problem, the police must solve that problem and ensure the suspect understands their rights.

And this decision was made in 1966.

Supreme Court decisions are usually liberal and freedom-oriented.

By the way, let’s note; no matter which president appoints the high judge, they recognize no one after taking office.

American history is full of such examples. President Nixon was brought down by decisions signed by judges he appointed.

Indeed, even if the appointed judges are conservative, they prefer to be liberal in their decisions.

Because decisions go down in history.

Even the court’s website has transcripts of all hearings. You can see online who said what, what the judge did, and what was written in the rationale.

We can’t even access the decisions about us in Turkey, but the U.S. Supreme Court publishes the transcripts of its hearings.

Being a law graduate is enough to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

However, presidents meticulously select the person to be appointed. For example, the resumes of the current 9 members are on the website. They are all graduates of schools like Harvard, Yale, and have a solid education.

They have high ethical concerns.

None of them bow in front of the president or try to button up their non-existent robe buttons.

In summary, that’s the structure and functioning of the U.S. Constitutional Court. So, if the system is so good, where did these new ethical rules come from?

Ultimately, everything comes down to people.

No matter how well you set up the system, someone can come and shake it up.

These ethical rules in question emerged from such a debate.

The American media and politics have been discussing conservative judge Clarence Thomas’s vacations sponsored by his businessman friend for a while.

According to a report in ProRepublica (and, of course, the journalists who made this report were not arrested or investigated), Judge Thomas went on vacations financed by his friend Crow, traveling on his yacht.

Judge Thomas defended that he didn’t need to report these personal vacations. He claimed their friendship was personal, and Crow had no legal or political requests from him.

However, senators are insistent on an investigation because federal judges, like Supreme Court judges, must declare the gifts they receive.

By the way, Thomas, known as the court’s most conservative judge, was appointed by President George Bush in 1991. So he’s been sitting in that seat for a long time.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced the ethical codes that court members must follow in a press release following these discussions.

Such an event occurred for the first time in the 234-year history of the court.

The nine-page professional ethics rules remind judges that their personal relationships should not affect their work and impose limitations on accepting gifts.

So what’s on the list?

Actually, there’s nothing on the list that is unknown or surprising.

However, in countries like Turkey, where no rules exist, it’s impossible even to imagine such things.

It would have been good to translate and list the court’s published ethical codes.

However, it would be a very long article, so I’m putting the link here. (SEE HERE)

A very detailed list has been made.

What judges can and cannot do is recorded in detail. When you look at the subheadings, you can see that every possibility has been considered to prevent all potential abuses.

Let’s get to the ‘middle of the book’.

On one hand, you see the situation of judges in Turkey, and on the other, you look at the ethical rules that American judges are obliged to follow.

It’s impossible to describe the difference.

In Turkey, we have judges who run drug cartels, prosecutors who set up stock markets and extort the public; in the U.S., judges who must report even a small gift as a bribe.

The ‘Ethical Codes’ list has such details that you can’t help but ask, if they are judges, what are ours!”

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Adem Yavuz Arslan
Adem Yavuz Arslan
Adem Yavuz Aslan is a leading Turkish investigative journalist in exile based in Washington, D.C.
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