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Should SCOTUS justices have a Code of Conduct?

Four Democrats are pushing new legislation that would hold Supreme Court justices to explicit ethical standards, in response to new revelations about political activities by Clarence Thomas' wife.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Four Democrats are pushing new legislation that would hold Supreme Court justices to explicit ethical standards, in response to new revelations about political activities by Clarence Thomas' wife.

U.S. Supreme Court Justices gather for an official picture at the Supreme Court in Washington, September 29, 2009. (Photo by Jim Young/Reuters)

Should Supreme Court Justices be held to the same ethical standards as other Federal judges? If you ask many legal scholars, the answer’s yes. But in fact, the Justices deciding the most important cases in the nation aren’t held to the same standards as all other Federal judges–and at least four Democrats want to change that.

Rep. Louise Slaughter and Senators Richard Blumenthal, Chris Murphy, and Sheldon Whitehouse introduced the Supreme Court Ethics of 2013 bill on Thursday. Similar legislation had been introduced in the past, but the lawmakers were inspired to take action on this issue again after new revelations showed Virginia Thomas, wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, has been actively involved with a new right-wing political group.

David Corn, who authored this latest report, joined PoliticsNation Monday to share the details of how “Groundswell” has been planning to take down President Obama’s agenda.

“Groundswell is a coalition of right-wing groups and activists led by Ginni Thomas and others who get together on a weekly basis to put together strategy and messaging points so they all can speak together in unison and try to change the political narrative from a far right perspective,” he said.

Recent strategy sessions included conversations about how to re-brand issues like voter ID, an issue that came indirectly before the Court just this year when they ruled on the Voting Rights Act.

“And some of these groups actually involved may be bringing cases to the court, doing friends of the court briefs,” he said. “It’s very very close. I mean, for there to be an official conflict often there has to be money changing hands, but this is really sort of walking the line.”

Slaughter believes the legislation needs to be enacted in order to restore public trust in the Court, which saw its approval rating drop to near all-time lows in a recent Gallup poll.

“Recent reports of dubious ethical behavior by Supreme Court justices have undermined these two fundamental principles, and have eroded the American people’s faith in the Supreme Court as an institution. In order to restore the people’s trust, the Supreme Court needs to adopt a Code of Conduct–just as every other federal judge is required by law,” Slaughter said.

Thomas’s involvement in Groundswell may be latest report that’s increased scrutiny on certain Justices, but it’s not the first. Many called for Thomas to recuse himself from the case deciding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act after it was disclosed that his wife was actively involved with a group trying to see the law repealed. Justices Thomas and Antonin Scalia have also been called out in the past for their attendance at a fundraiser for the Federalist Society, where they sat alongside some of the lawyers who argue cases in front of them.

The proposed legislation would hold the Court’s members to the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, prohibiting them from engaging in political activity or fundraising and also requiring them to recuse themselves from certain cases in which they have a conflict of interest. Today, such recusals are voluntary and the Justices have absolutely no limits on their political activities.

“These rules are designed to protect individual judges–and the judicial system as a whole — from even the appearance of partiality or impropriety so that the American people can have complete confidence that federal judges act without personal bias or political agenda,” Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, explained in an opinion piece last year.

If lawmakers can pass the legislation, the Justices’ activity could be limited, but if they can’t, it’s unlikely the Court will begin abiding by those specific rules anytime soon. Last year Blumenthal and Whitehouse joined Senate Judiaciary Chairman Patrick Leahy and others to petition Chief Justice John Roberts to adopt the Code of Conduct voluntarily last year. His response: no thanks.

“I have complete confidence in the capability of my colleagues to determine when recusal is warranted,” Roberts wrote in response to similar calls. “They are jurists of exceptional integrity and experience whose character and fitness have been examined through a rigorous appointment and confirmation process. I know that they each give careful consideration to any recusal questions that arise in the course of their judicial duties.”