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  • Writer's pictureMagdeline Gomes

Senate Pushes for Legislation on Stronger Judicial Ethics Standards

The Supreme Court receives increased scrutiny amidst calls for increased ethical standards in the judiciary (Joe Ravi, Wikimedia Commons)

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill on July 20 that calls for stricter ethical guidelines for the Supreme Court. This decision was a reaction to reports about justices receiving financial support for their trips from certain donors as well as additional unfair financial benefits. Republicans, in particular, are very vocal about their opposition to this bill, fearing it may cause harm to the court.

What Prompted This Legislation?

Reports from earlier this year regarding Justice Clarence Thomas’ participation in high-end holidays and a real estate deal with a major GOP donor acted as a catalyst for this bill. In addition, Justice Samuel Alito had previously taken a luxury vacation with a GOP donor, and Chief Justice John Roberts had chosen not to testify before the Judiciary Committee about the ethics of the court, both of which prompted calls for a deeper look into court ethics rules.

The State of the Legislation

The proposed bill that sets ethical guidelines for the Supreme Court faces significant opposition from Republicans. Due to this, the legislation stands little chance of advancing, as it needs at least nine votes from the Republican Party in the House to pass.

The bill would require the Supreme Court to, at a minimum, adopt and adhere to ethics and disclosure rules similar to those governing Congress, including strict disclosure requirements and the creation of a panel to investigate misconduct complaints. Democrats on the Judiciary Committee believe that the bill is necessary due to the court’s refusal to enforce its own ethics rules. Senator Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois and chairman of the committee, said this regarding the bill: “This legislation will be a crucial first step in restoring confidence in the court after a steady stream of reports of justice’s ethical failures.”

The legislation comes after years of increasing tension and partisanship within the committee over the Supreme Court. Former President Donald Trump nominated three conservative justices to the court, all confirmed when Republicans were in the Senate majority, with considerable opposition from Democrats. As a result of the subsequent Republican majority on the court, several liberal policies were overturned, including the right to abortion on a federal scale. Republicans claimed that rather than ethics, the Democrats’ resistance to the court’s rulings is the primary motivation for the proposal.

The top Republican on the judiciary committee, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, criticized Democrats’ efforts to pass the legislation. He claimed that the purpose of the bill was to destroy the court as it existed by tightening the rules around recusals and disqualifying conservatives from certain decisions. Instead, he stated that Congress should respect the separation of powers between the executive branch and the judicial system and stay out of the court’s affairs.

Graham, as well as other Republicans on the panel, asserted that the proposal blatantly violated the Constitution’s separation of powers because it would give lower court judges the authority to assess justices who review and occasionally overturn decisions made by lower courts. It has further been speculated that lawyers would attempt to clog the court by using the new procedures to compel justices to recuse themselves.

Roberts had been invited by Durbin to speak at a hearing, but Roberts rejected, stating that chief justice testimony is extremely uncommon because upholding judicial independence is highly prioritized. Instead, Roberts sent the court’s nine justices a statement on “Ethics Principles and Practices” outlining the moral guidelines they should adhere to concerning business travel, gifts, and outside income. A statement provided by Roberts said that 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.” Additionally, there was a promise that at least some small additional disclosure would be made when one or more of the justices opt not to participate in a case. Many report that the justices have been inconsistent in doing so since. Roberts broadly stated that the court could do more to maintain a high level of ethical conduct. Still, he declined to elaborate further or provide any additional details on this matter.



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