February 21, 2024

Senate Judiciary Committee advances Supreme Court ethics bill amid scrutiny of judges’ ties to GOP donors

Washington — The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced legislation Thursday that would force the Supreme Court to adopt an ethics code, as Democrats followed through on their promise of legislative action following a series of reports about Justice Clarence Thomas’ relationship with a Republican real estate magnate.

Known as the Supreme Court Ethics, Relief and Transparency Act, the bill from lead sponsor Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse cleared the committee along party lines, 11-10. During the committee’s consideration of the measure, Republicans introduced several amendments related to the protests outside the Supreme Court justices’ homes, the leak of the draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, expanding the Supreme Court and imposing new rules on reporters covering the High Court.

All of the proposed changes by GOP senators failed, with the exception of one: An amendment by Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana that, after modification, condemns racial attacks and comments against current or former judges, including Thomas, passed unanimously.

The GOP has said the Whitehouse bill is dead on arrival in the full Senate and Republican-controlled House.

The legislation, which has the support of more than two dozen Democrats in the Senate, would require the Supreme Court to adopt a code of conduct for judges and implement procedures for dealing with complaints of judicial misconduct. It would also require the high court to impose stricter rules on disclosure of gifts, travel and income received by judges and their law clerks.

The measure asks the Supreme Court to establish procedural rules that require all parties to a case or entities that file a friend of the court brief to disclose gifts, income or reimbursement provided to members of the court and tightens rules on when judges or justices must recuse themselves from cases.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said the legislation would bring Supreme Court justices in line with other federal officials and is “a critical first step in restoring confidence” in the high court.

“Unlike all other federal officials, Supreme Court justices are not bound by a code of ethical conduct. They are the most powerful judges in America and yet they are not required to follow even the most basic ethical standards,” he said.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Chairman Richard Durbin and Senator Dianne Feinstein at a committee business meeting to discuss Supreme Court ethics reform in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on July 20, 2023, in Washington, DC
Senator Lindsey Graham, Chairman Richard Durbin and Senator Dianne Feinstein at a committee business meeting to discuss Supreme Court ethics reform in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on July 20, 2023, in Washington, DC

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


However, there is little chance that the proposal will become law due to opposition from Republicans in the Senate and the House. GOP senators painted the revelations about Thomas as part of a broader effort by Democrats to delegitimize the high court’s conservative majority after making major decisions abortion, guns, affirmative action and religious rights. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy suggested that he does not believe Congress should step in at all.

“I think that the Supreme Court, with three separate branches of government, has the ability to supervise themselves in this process just as the House is doing their work here,” said McCarthy at a press conference on Monday.

Senator Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, put the bill’s prospects in stark terms, saying, “This ill-conceived effort in the name of court reform will not pass in the United States Senate.”

“This is a bill to destroy a conservative court. This is a bill to create a situation where conservative judges can be disqualified by statute. It is a bill to control the composition of the court itself, and it is an attack on the court itself,” he said during the Judiciary Committee meeting.

Although previous proposals have been made focusing on the ethics rules at the Supreme Court, momentum behind legislative action built after the news organization ProPublica revealed Thomas a luxury holiday and travel arrangements from Harlan Crow, a Texas real estate developer and GOP donor, during their 25-year friendship. Also found the outlet to Crow three properties were purchased from Thomas and his family for more than $133,000 in 2014 and tuition paid your great-nephew Thomas at two private schools more than ten years ago.

Senate Justices and Finance Committees asked Crow to account for the gifts, trips and travel arrangements he gave to Thomas, although rebuffed their application.

ProPublica too reveal that in 2008, Justice Samuel Alito fly aboard a private jet provided by billionaire hedge fund Paul Singer to Alaska for a luxury fishing trip. The singer was later linked to cases before the Supreme Court.

Neither Thomas nor Alito included the trips and financial dealings on their financial disclosure forms. Alito defended his conduct in an op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal, writing that he had no obligation to recuse himself from the cases involving the Singer business, and that he did not have to report the travel and lodging because the jet was an “amenity” exempt from reporting requirements. Alito argued that hospitality was “interpreted” by the justices to include accommodations and conduct for social events that did not need to be reported as gifts.

In addition to disclosures about Thomas and Alito, Associated Press investigation Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s court staff found that public entities that hosted her pressured them to buy her books. She failed to recover herself from situations involving her book publisher.

Durbin requested Chief Justice John Roberts testifies in front of the panel of Judges in May about the ethics rules that govern the Supreme Court, even though he is the chief justice declined the invitation. Roberts, however, provided the committee with a “Statement of Ethical Principles and Practices” signed by the nine sitting justices, and said they all adhere to it.

The statement said the justices consult a “wide variety of authorities” to address potential ethical issues and may seek advice from their colleagues and the Supreme Court Law Office.

Lower court judges must comply with s code of conduct which advises judges to “avoid propriety and improper appearance in all activities.” But the ethical standards, adopted by the Judicial Conference in 1973, do not cover Supreme Court judges.

Roberts told us speech in May that there is more that the High Court can do to “adhere to the highest standards” of ethical behavior and the judges said that “the judges are continuing to look at what we can do to give practical effect to that commitment.”

Renewed scrutiny of the Supreme Court and the ethics policies that govern it comes after public confidence in the nation’s highest court. tank following its decision in June 2022 which ended the constitutional right to abortion.

The decision, and the release of a draft opinion earlier in the case, sparked a wave of protests, outside the court and in the homes of conservative judges. A California man who was allegedly armed with a gun, knife and various tools arrested outside Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s home last year and was charged with attempted murder.

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