Senate Committee Approves Bill That Imposes Stronger Ethics Standards on Supreme Court Justices

Under legislation approved Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, the Supreme Court must abide by stronger ethics standards, responding to recent revelations about donor-funded trips by justices. The legislation faced united opposition from the GOP, who said it could “destroy” the court.

The bill has a minimal chance of making it through the full Senate.

The panel voted along party lines to set ethics rules for the high court and a process to enforce them, including gifts, potential conflicts of interest, and new standards for transparency around recusals.

Democrats first pushed the legislation after reports earlier this year that Justice Clarence Thomas had participated in a real estate deal and luxury vacations with a top GOP donor and after Chief Justice John Roberts declined to testify in front of the committee about the court’s ethics.

Since then, news reports revealed Justice Samuel Alito had taken a luxury vacation with a Republican donor. The Associated Press reported that with assistance from her staff, Justice Sonia Sotomayor has advanced sales of her books through college visits over the past decade.

Dick Durbin, Senate Judiciary Chairman, said the legislation would be a “crucial first step” in restoring confidence in the court. He said if any senators in the room had engaged in similar activities, they would have committed ethics violations.

“The same is not true of justices across the street,” said Durbin.

The ethics legislation has a minimal chance of passing in the Senate — but it would need nine Republican votes, and the GOP has vehemently opposed it — the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

However, Democrats say the flood of revelations means that enforceable standards on the court are necessary.

Republicans said the legislation concerns Democratic opposition to the court’s decisions than its ethics.
“It’s about harassing and intimidating the Supreme Court,” said senior GOP member on the panel, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley.

Top Republican on the Judiciary panel, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, said Democrats are trying to “destroy” the court as it exists by disqualifying conservatives from some decisions and tightening the rules around recusals.

Graham said Congress should stay out of the court’s business and mind the separation of powers.
The bill “is an assault on the court itself,” said Graham.

The legislation would mandate a new “code of conduct” for the Supreme Court with a process for adjudicating the policy modeled on lower courts with ethics codes.

It would require justices to provide additional information about possible conflicts of interest, require public, written explanations about their decisions not to recuse, and allow impartial panels of judges to review justices’ decisions not to recuse.

The legislation would also seek to improve transparency around the gifts justices receive and set up a process to both investigate and enforce violations around the required disclosures.

Roberts declined to testify at the hearing and provided a statement

Senator Durbin had invited Justice Roberts to testify at the hearing. Still, he declined, saying that testimony by a chief justice is extremely rare because of the critical importance of preserving judicial independence. Roberts also provided a “Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices,” signed by all nine justices, and described the ethical rules they follow about gifts, travel, and outside income.

The Roberts statement said the nine justices “reaffirm and restate foundational ethics principles and practices to which they subscribe in carrying out their responsibilities as Members of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Roberts has acknowledged the high court could do more to adhere to the highest standards of ethical conduct; however, he didn’t elaborate and hasn’t followed up publicly on the idea.

Besides Justice Sotomayor’s push for book sales, the AP reported that universities have used trips by justices as a lure for financial contributions by putting them in event rooms with wealthy donors, and the justices have taken all-expenses-paid teaching trips to locations with minimal classroom instruction.