The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a bill that would impose strict new ethical rules on judges, despite fierce Republican opposition, in response to a string of revelations that Supreme Court justices are taking free luxury travel and receiving other financial benefits from wealthy patrons.
The bill is unlikely to pass given strong Republican opposition, but it would require the High Court to adopt and adhere to ethics and disclosure rules at least as good as those that apply to members of Congress. It will also impose new transparency requirements and create a panel of appeals judges to review allegations of misconduct against judges. Democrats on the committee argued the move was necessary because the courts refused to police themselves.
Illinois Democratic Party Chairman Senator Richard J. Durbin said of the bill, which passed a partisan vote, “this bill will be an important first step in restoring confidence in the courts after constant reports of the ethical failures of the judiciary.”
Republicans raged over abortion rights, environmental, civil rights and federal authority decisions that Democrats opposed, accusing Democrats of trying to “destroy” the conservative-majority courts and undermine their credibility. They said it could not become law.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a senior Republican on the commission, said “this bill does nothing” and said it would “fundamentally change the way courts operate.”
He and other Republicans on the committee said the bill, which would allow lower court judges to review and, in some cases, overturn lower court decisions, was a clear violation of the constitution’s separation of powers. Lawyers will use the new rules to force judges to resign and bog down courts, they said.
“I think our nation’s founders are turning over in their graves,” said Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn.
Democrats conceded that the bill would not pass in the current Senate, which requires 60 votes, and the prospects for it in the Republican-controlled House are bleak. But they said the debate could draw attention to ethical issues in the High Court and increase momentum for future action by Congress.
“We are here because the ethical standards of the Supreme Court in this country are among the lowest anywhere in the federal government, and the judges have demonstrated gross misconduct, especially in their ill-fated efforts to excuse wrongdoing,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and lead author of the bill. “It can’t go on like this. To defend this act is to defend the undefensible.”
The battle was the latest clash over the courts in a committee that is increasingly partisan over the nomination of judges and their own recognition. Graham suggested earlier this week that the Democrats’ decision to push forward with the ethics bill despite failing to pass it through Congress would likely reduce Republican cooperation on the committee.
The Democratic push came on the heels of a series of news reports showing: Judge Clarence Thomas and Judge Samuel A. Alito He took lavish vacations and private jet trips, courtesy of the billionaire, but didn’t publicize them. In Judge Thomas’ case, Republican mega-donor Harlan Crow also paid for his relatives’ education and purchased real estate from the judge.
Vermont Democratic Senator Peter Welch said voters were expressing surprise that the judge could take such a benefit, much less disclose it.
“Disclosure is the bare minimum and that should apply to any judge,” he said.
In defending the trip, the judges said they believed they didn’t need to report the trip because of their social relationships with people who picked up the tabs. And earlier this year, Republicans pointed out that the code of ethics governing judges in federal courts other than the Supreme Court had been clarified to require them to disclose free stays at commercial establishments.
Due to its special constitutional status, the High Court is not bound by its code of judicial ethics. But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said in a letter to the commission earlier this year that the High Court “is guided” by the code of ethics followed by lower courts.
Republicans said the ethics bill was the latest in a Democratic push to fuel public outrage against the court. They repeatedly noted that New York Democratic Party Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer attended an abortion rights rally in front of the Supreme Court in 2020, and singled out Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh, saying that if they stripped them of abortion rights, they would “get out of the whirlwind” and “pay the price.”
The remarks drew a scathing rebuke from Chief Justice Roberts, and Schumer recanted the next day, saying he meant political consequences.
“This bill is not about oversight or accountability,” said Iowa Republican Senator Charles E. Grassley, former chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “It’s about harassment and intimidation of the Supreme Court.”
But Democrats said they were only trying to dispel the ethical cloud that hung over the courtroom, raising ethical questions about both Republican and Republican-appointed judges. Democratic Party.
“Hawaii’s Supreme Court should be a role model,” said Hawaii Democratic Senator Maisie K. Hirono.
Before approving the bill, Democrats on the committee pushed back against a series of Republican amendments aimed at nullifying the bill.
Despite the committee’s approval, Mr. Schumer has not committed to taking the ethics bill to the floor for consideration, which could hinder or delay other required passages. As the Senate seeks to promote bipartisan cooperation, immediate action is unlikely. Legislation on Department of Defense Policy There are other issues such as spending.
But Schumer reiterated Thursday that he supports the bill.
“Americans agree that similarly high ethical standards should be held to judges standing on the Supreme Court of the country,” he said.