U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court ethics legislation will advance after Alito revelations, committee chairman says

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SCOTUS Roberts Court June 2022

The U.S. Supreme Court as composed June 30, 2022, to present. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, tweeted Wednesday that the Supreme Court “is in an ethical crisis of its own making.” Photo by Fred Schilling via the Supreme Court website.

New revelations about a U.S. Supreme Court justice’s undisclosed free trip to Alaska have apparently prompted Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin to announce that his panel will mark up ethics legislation for the high court next month.

Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, tweeted Wednesday that the Supreme Court “is in an ethical crisis of its own making due to the acceptance of lavish gifts from parties with business before the court that several justices have not disclosed.”

Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island joined Durbin in the statement, report Politico and the Hill.

Currently, trial-level and appeals judges in the federal judiciary are bound by the Code of Conduct for United States Judges. But the code does not bind Supreme Court justices.

In February, the ABA House of Delegates called on the Supreme Court to adopt a binding code of ethics for its justices that is similar to the code for other federal judges.

The markup announcement by Durbin and Whitehouse followed a ProPublica report that said Justice Samuel Alito took a free vacation to an Alaska fishing lodge in 2008, thanks to the generosity of hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer and mortgage company entrepreneur Robin Arkley II. Singer flew Alito to the fishing lodge on his private jet, and Arkley, who owned the lodge, provided the accommodations.

Alito later ruled for Singer’s hedge fund in a case that helped the fund recover $2.4 billion. Alito said he was unaware that Singer had a link to that case and others that came before the Supreme Court in petitions for or against certiorari.

ProPublica previously reported that Justice Clarence Thomas accepted free trips from billionaire Republican megadonor Harlan Crow.

Durbin and Whitehouse said they hoped that Chief Justice John Roberts “will take the lead and bring Supreme Court ethics in line with all other federal judges.”

In April, Roberts had turned down an invitation to testify before Durbin’s committee. Instead, Roberts forwarded to the committee a “Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices” that all the justices have agreed to follow. Democrats said the principles don’t go far enough.

Whitehouse reintroduced his Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act in February. His Senate Judiciary Courts Subcommittee had a hearing on the bill last week, according to a June 21 press release.

The bill would require the Supreme Court to adopt a code of conduct within 180 days. According to a Feb. 9 press release, the bill would:

  • Require the Supreme Court to adopt rules requiring disclosure for gifts for justices and law clerks that are at least as rigorous as the House of Representatives and Senate disclosure rules.
  • Require greater disclosure of amicus curiae funding.
  • Require parties and those who submit amicus briefs to disclose recent travel, gifts and reimbursements to justices. Parties and amicus curiae would also have to disclose lobbying or money that they spent to promote a justice’s Supreme Court confirmation.
  • Ensure that requests for recusal are reviewed by a panel of randomly selected judges or the rest of the Supreme Court.
  • Require written explanations for recusal decisions.

A simple majority is all that is needed to advance a Supreme Court ethics bill through the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Senate Democrats would need at least nine Republican votes to overcome a filibuster in the Senate, according to Politico.

Hat tip to ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott on Twitter.

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “Supreme Court justices should follow binding code of ethics, ABA House says”

ABAJournal.com: “Justice Thomas listed income from a real-estate firm even after it closed in 2006”

ABAJournal.com: “Justice Thomas’ financial disclosure issues referred to committee of federal judges”

ABAJournal.com: “Billionaire friend paid private school tuition for nephew of Justice Thomas”

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