MARY CLAIRE JALONIK (Associated Press)
WASHINGTON (FloridaToday.news) — The Supreme Court will be required to uphold stricter ethical standards under legislation approved Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee in response to recent revelations about judges’ donor-funded travel. The bill faced united Republican opposition, who said it could “destroy” the court.
The group voted along the party line to establish ethics rules for the court and a process for enforcing them, including new standards of transparency regarding recusals, gifts, and potential conflicts of interest. Democrats pushed through the law for the first time after reports earlier this year that Judge Clarence Thomas was involved in a luxury vacation and real estate deal with a top GOP donor, and after Chief Justice John Roberts refused to testify before the court’s ethics committee.
Since then, the news has also reported that Judge Samuel Alito had a lavish vacation with a GOP donor. And the Associated Press reported last week that Judge Sonia Sotomayor, with the help of her staff, has boosted her book sales through college visits over the past decade.
The ethics bill has little chance of passing the Senate — it would require at least nine GOP votes, and the Republicans are vehemently opposed — or the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. But Democrats say the flood of revelations means that binding standards in court are needed.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said the legislation would be a “critical first step” in restoring confidence in the court. He said that if any of the senators sitting in the hall were engaged in such activities, it would be a violation of the rules of ethics.
“The same does not apply to judges across the street,” Durbin said.
The law comes after years of growing tension and growing partisanship in the committee on the judiciary. Then-President Donald Trump nominated three conservative justices to the Supreme Court, all of whom were confirmed when Republicans were in the majority in the Senate and faced significant Democratic opposition. As a result, the court moved sharply to the right, overturning the nationwide right to abortion and other liberal priorities.
Republicans said the law was more about Democrats’ opposition to the court’s decisions than about ethics.
“This is about harassment and intimidation of the Supreme Court,” said Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, a senior GOP member of the commission.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the Judiciary, said Democrats are trying to “destroy” the existing court by tightening the rules on recusal and depriving conservatives of the right to make some decisions. Congress should stay out of the court and keep the separation of powers in mind, Graham said.
The bill “is an attack on the court itself,” Graham said.
The legislation mandates a new “code of conduct” for the Supreme Court, with a policy decision process modeled on lower courts that have codes of ethics. This will require judges to provide more information about potential conflicts of interest, allow impartial panels of judges to review judges’ decisions not to recuse themselves, and require public written explanations of their decisions not to recuse themselves. It will also seek to increase the transparency of gifts received by judges and establish a process for investigating and enforcing violations of required disclosures.
Republicans on the committee proposed a number of amendments to the bill, some of which were aimed at improving judges’ safety after a man with a gun, knife and pepper spray was found near the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year. The commission rejected most of the amendments as most Democrats said Republicans were trying to divert attention from ethics reform.
Durbin dismissed the idea that legislation is about politics, noting that he began pushing for reform of the Supreme Court’s ethics over a decade ago, when the court was more liberal. “The reforms we are proposing apply equally to all judges,” Durbin said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., took a more partisan approach in a statement praising the panel’s vote. “We need to make sure the Supreme Court is not in the pocket of the ultra-rich and MAGA extremists,” Schumer said.
The current push came after news reports surfaced of Thomas’ close relationship with Dallas billionaire and GOP donor Harlan Crow. Crowe purchased three properties owned by Thomas and his family in a deal worth more than $100,000 that Thomas never disclosed, according to ProPublica, a non-profit investigative reporting organization. The organization also reported that Crowe gave Thomas and his wife Ginny hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of annual vacations and trips over several decades.
Durbin invited Roberts to testify at the hearing, but Roberts declined, stating that testimony from the Chief Justice was extremely rare due to the importance of maintaining judicial independence. Roberts also submitted a “Statement of Ethical Principles and Practices” signed by all nine judges, outlining the ethical rules they follow regarding travel, gifts, and outside income.
A statement provided by Roberts said the nine justices “reaffirm and reiterate the fundamental ethical principles and practices they uphold in the performance of their duties as members of the Supreme Court of the United States.”
The statement promised at least a small amount of additional disclosure when one or more of them decide not to take part in the case. But judges have been inconsistent on this since then.
Roberts acknowledged that the court could have done more to uphold the highest standards of ethical conduct, but he did not elaborate and did not publicly support the idea.
In addition to Sotomayor’s push for book sales, the AP reported that universities used judges’ trips as bait for financial donations by placing them in conference rooms with wealthy donors, and that judges made paid study trips to attractive locations with little real classroom learning.