U.S. Supreme Court

With only Democratic votes, Supreme Court ethics bill advances to Senate

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SCOTUS Roberts Court June 2022

“Unlike every other federal official, Supreme Court justices are not bound by a code of ethical conduct,” Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said in Thursday’s hearing. (Photo by Fred Schilling via the Supreme Court website.)

A bill requiring the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt a code of ethics and send complaints to an investigative panel of lower-court judges won Senate Judiciary Committee approval Thursday.

The Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act was approved by an 11-10 vote, with committee Democrats voting in favor of the bill, report Bloomberg Law, Reuters, Axios and CBS News.

“Unlike every other federal official, Supreme Court justices are not bound by a code of ethical conduct,” said Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin in prepared opening remarks. “They are the most powerful judges in America. And yet they are not required to follow even the most basic ethical standards. The SCERT Act we are considering would change that.”

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 SCERT bill requires the Supreme Court to adopt an ethics code, establish procedures for people to file complaints, and send those complaints to a judicial investigative panel of five randomly selected lower court judges. The panel would make findings and recommendations and present them to the Supreme Court.

The recommendations could include dismissal of the complaint, disciplinary action or changes to Supreme Court procedure. The panel would have to publish a report if it does not recommend dismissal and could publish a report in other cases.

The bill also requires the adoption of disclosure rules for gifts, income and reimbursements that are at least as rigorous as the rules that apply to the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. And the bill requires written explanations for recusal decisions and a review process for recusal requests.

Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans opposed the bill.

“What you’re trying to do is not improve the court; you’re trying to destroy it as it exists,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “Passing legislation to micromanage how the court operates destroys the court.”

Graham said the bill “will go nowhere in the United States Senate.” Democrats also indicated that lack of bipartisan support for the bill would make it impossible to pass.

But the committee’s review of the bill “gave Democrats a platform to decry the ethics of some members of the Supreme Court,” Reuters observed.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island sponsored the bill. In prepared opening remarks, Whitehouse said he realized that Supreme Court ethics “were haywire” when he learned that the late Justice Antonin Scalia “had taken many dozens of unreported freebie vacations, often with political companions.”

He went on to criticize Justice Clarence Thomas for failing to recuse in cases related to the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot, even though his wife had backed efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Whitehouse also criticized justices who accepted “massive secret gifts of travel and hospitality” from “politically active right-wing billionaires.”

Justice Samuel Alito accepted a 2008 trip to an Alaskan fishing lodge that was bankrolled by a hedge fund billionaire and a mortgage company entrepreneur. Justice Clarence Thomas has also accepted free trips from billionaire Republican megadonor Harlan Crow.

Durbin’s opening statement also referred to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose court staff pushed sales of her books at her speaking engagements.

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