Republicans block bill requiring Supreme Court to adopt enforceable ethics code

Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and other Republican senators on Wednesday blocked a bill requiring the Supreme Court to adopt a code of conduct and create a mechanism to enforce it in the wake of several high-profile controversies.

The legislation, the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act, would require Supreme Court justices to adopt a code of conduct, create a mechanism to investigate alleged violations of the code and other laws and improve the disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) requested unanimous consent to pass the legislation Wednesday afternoon.

He criticized Chief Justice John Roberts on the Senate floor for not doing enough to enforce ethical standards on the Supreme Court after media reports revealed that conservative Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas received lavish gifts and hospitality from conservative donors.

Durbin also cited concerns about Alito’s impartiality after two flags associated with former President Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election were displayed at his home and vacation house.

“In November of last year the Supreme Court adopted an ineffective code of conduct for its justices but it did not enforce the ethics rule in any meaningful way and does not include a mechanism to address violations of the code,” Durbin said.

“The Supreme Court’s own code of conduct reiterates justices should disqualify themselves in cases where there is reasonable doubt about their impartiality. Despite serious questions about the impartiality of Justice Alito and Justice Thomas in numerous cases, they have refused to recuse themselves from these cases. The ethics crisis as the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, is unacceptable,” he said.

But Graham immediately objected to the request.

“Let’s be clear, this is not about improving the court. This is about undermining the court,” he said.

He noted that in April of last year all nine Supreme Court justices signed a statement on ethics, principles and practices and in November promulgated a code of conduct.

“This would be an overreach, undermine the court’s ability to operate effectively,” he warned.

“All I would say is there are provisions in this bill that should bother anybody that cares about an independent judiciary,” he said, pointing out the bill would create an investigative panel of lower court judges to “preside over their bosses” on the Supreme Court.

Sens. John Kennedy (R-La.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) also objected to Durbin’s request.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the chair of the Federal Courts and Oversight Judiciary Subcommittee and sponsor of the Supreme Court ethics bill, spoke in favor of it.

“Our bill does not make the Supreme Court subservient to Congress in any respect. The bill obliges the judicial branch of government to create its own ethics enforcement mechanism that will be run within the judicial branch of government by the judicial branch of government,” he said.

Durbin requested consent to pass Supreme Court ethics reform after he and Whitehouse unsuccessfully sought a meeting with Roberts to discuss the need for Alito to recuse himself from Trump-related cases.

Roberts rebuffed their request in a May 30 letter, which informed the Democratic senators that such a meeting would be inadvisable because of “separation of powers concerns and the importance of preserving judicial independence.”

Durbin and Whitehouse say Alito should recuse himself from a pending case about whether Trump should have legal immunity for any crimes connected to his official acts as president.

They say Alito should step back from the case after The New York Times reported that an upside-down flag, a symbol of the “Stop the Steal” movement, was displayed at his Virginia home, and that another flag associated with Jan. 6, 2021 — an “Appeal to Heaven” flag — was displayed at his New Jersey beach house.

They also wanted to discuss with Roberts the need for the Supreme Court to adopt an enforceable ethics code after reports that Alito and Thomas accepted lavish gifts and hospitality from conservative donors.

ProPublica reported last year that Alito took a luxury fishing vacation in Alaska with Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire, and accepted a private jet trip that would have cost more than $100,000 if he paid for it out of his own pocket.

And ProPublica reported last year that Thomas had accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospitality, travel and other gifts from conservative donor Harlan Crow.

The watchdog group, Fix the Court, citing ProPublica’s reporting, released a list of 193 gifts totaling more than $4 million in value that Thomas has accepted since 2004.

Alito has also come under new scrutiny this week after a liberal advocate journalist posted a recorded conversation from a Supreme Court gala in which the justice endorsed the idea that the nation needs return “to a place of godliness.”

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.