WASHINGTON — Top Senate Democrats announced Monday that a key committee will vote on legislation to set up a code of conduct for the Supreme Court, tighten financial disclosure rules and beef up recusal requirements for justices.
The Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act, led by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., will get a vote in the committee on July 20, they announced in a joint statement.
“Whether you agree or disagree with the most recent historic decisions by the Supreme Court, we hope we can all agree on one thing — these nine justices have extraordinary powers under our Constitution,” Whitehouse and Durbin said. “The belief that they should not be held accountable or even disclose lavish gifts from wealthy benefactors is an affront to the nation they were chosen to serve. To hold these nine Justices to the same standard as every other federal judge is not a radical or partisan notion.”
"Since the Court won’t act, Congress will," they said.
The bill would give the court 180 days to adopt and publish a code of conduct, allowing the public to submit ethics complaints that a randomly selected panel of lower court judges would review. It would establish new rules for disclosure of gifts and travel. And it would impose recusal rules pertaining to gifts, income and other potential conflicts.
The legislation is subject to a filibuster on the Senate floor, requiring 60 votes to advance. It is unclear whether Democrats, who control 51 votes, will win any Republican support for it. GOP senators have largely dismissed recent ethics questions aimed at the justices and said they trust the court to write its own internal rules.
In an op-ed Monday for The Washington Post, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., defended the court against what he called “escalating attacks from the left” and rejected new rules.
“Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are trying to tell a coequal branch of government how to manage its internal operations, ostensibly to clean up its ‘ethics,’” he wrote.
Trust in the Supreme Court is declining as it has reshaped American law with a 6-to-3 majority of Republican appointees that makes it the most ideologically conservative court in nearly a century. Lawmakers have also raised questions about ethics and conflict of interest, citing recent reports that Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito accepted gifts and luxury travel from billionaires with interests before the court.
An NBC News poll last month found that just 31% of American registered voters have positive views of the Supreme Court, while 40% have negative views. In October 2018, by contrast, 50% had positive views, while 21% had negative views.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., championed the proposal on the floor Monday.
“What we're seeing at the Supreme Court is a sickening hypocrisy as some justices feel free to accept lavish gifts and vacations from billionaire friends," Schumer said. "And the billionaires who were provided these trips in emoluments are no ordinary run-of-the-mill billionaires. They are ideological MAGA extremists who bankroll hard-right MAGA causes and then bring those cases before the same judges they patronized. Congress has clear authority to oversee the federal judiciary, and that includes making sure that the highest court in the land is held to equally high ethical standards."
In recent months, Durbin has sought to pressure Chief Justice John Roberts to act on his own and tighten up ethics rules from within, to no avail.
After ProPublica first reported undisclosed gifts accepted by Thomas, Durbin wrote to Roberts in April inviting him to testify before the Judiciary Committee about “limited” matters involving “the ethical rules that govern the Justices of the Supreme Court and potential reforms to those rules.” Roberts declined, citing the rarity of such testimony and the separation of powers between the branches of government.
Amid a trio of controversial 6-3 rulings to close out the term, Roberts said it was “disturbing” to see a trend among some of the liberal justices “to criticize the decisions with which they disagree as going beyond the proper role of the judiciary.”
“We have employed the traditional tools of judicial decisionmaking in doing so,” he wrote in a ruling striking down President Joe Biden's federal student loan forgiveness program. “Reasonable minds may disagree with our analysis—in fact, at least three do. We do not mistake this plainly heartfelt disagreement for disparagement. It is important that the public not be misled either. Any such misperception would be harmful to this institution and our country.”