The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday advanced legislation that would require the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt an enforceable code of ethics and adhere to stronger disclosure rules following a series of revelations about the luxury trips and other gifts justices have received from right-wing billionaires.
Led by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act advanced out of committee without any Republican support.
In remarks ahead of Thursday’s vote, Whitehouse said he believes “the Supreme Court has been captured by special interests, much like a railroad commission in the 1890s might have been captured by railroad barons to decide things their way,” pointing to recent news that “six—six—politically-active right-wing billionaires have been paying household expenses, engaging in financial transactions, and providing massive secret gifts of travel and hospitality for at least two justices.”
“We are here because the highest court in the land has the lowest standards of ethics anywhere in the federal government, and justices have exhibited much improper behavior, not least in hapless efforts to excuse the misdeeds,” the senator added. “This cannot go on. Defending this behavior defends the indefensible.”
The SCERT Act would give the Supreme Court 180 days to adopt a binding code of ethics. Supreme Court justices are currently the only federal judges in the U.S. not bound by a code of conduct.
According to a summary released by Whitehouse’s office, the bill would also “require parties and amici curiae before the Supreme Court to disclose any recent gifts, travel, or reimbursements they’ve given to a justice” and “create new recusal requirements governing gifts, income, or reimbursements given to judges,” among other reforms.
“Today, Senate Judiciary Democrats demonstrated true leadership by addressing the growing ethics crisis on the Supreme Court,” Brett Edkins, managing director for policy and political affairs at Stand Up America, said in a statement. “The SCERT Act would establish a desperately needed code of ethics for all Supreme Court justices—liberal and conservative—to ensure that the highest court in the land isn’t held to the lowest ethical standards.”
“The American people deserve a Supreme Court that is free from corruption and inappropriate influence,” Edkins added, calling on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to bring the bill up for a vote “as soon as possible.”
The measure faces uncertain odds in the narrowly Democratic Senate and stands no chance of passing the GOP-controlled House.
Republicans spent much of Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing offering hysterical objections to Whitehouse’s bill. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) declared that, if adopted, the legislation would “destroy the United States Supreme Court as an institution,” a message echoed by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
“This is a bill to destroy a conservative court,” said Graham. “This bill is going nowhere. All of us are going to vote no.”
GOP members of the judiciary panel also sought to attach a number of amendments to the legislation, including one by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) aimed at blocking any future attempt to add justices to the Supreme Court.
Democrats rejected most of the Republican amendments, including Cruz’s.
Survey data released Wednesday by the progressive advocacy group Demand Justice showed that nearly 60% of Americans are less likely to support a political candidate who opposes Supreme Court ethics reform.
“With this vote, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee latched themselves onto a historically unpopular Supreme Court that is drowning in ethics scandals,” Demand Justice executive director Brian Fallon said Thursday.
“Polling shows clearly that Americans have lost confidence in the Court and are demanding reforms, but Republicans are making clear they will defend their corrupt allies on the Supreme Court no matter what,” Fallon added. “Democrats should promptly bring this bill to a vote on the floor whether or not it has the votes to pass, because voters deserve to know whether their elected representatives support reining in corruption at the nation’s highest court or not.”
In April, ProPublicareported that Thomas has been taking undisclosed luxury trips on the dime of billionaire businessman Harlan Crow—a major donor to Republicans and right-wing dark money organizations—for more than two decades.
Last month, the investigative outlet revealed that in 2008, Justice Samuel Alito took a luxury fishing vacation with Paul Singer, a billionaire whose hedge fund has had business before the Supreme Court.
Following ProPublica‘s reporting, Alito faced calls to recuse himself from a high-stakes case on President Joe Biden’s student debt cancellation plan after an advocacy group uncovered Singer’s financial connections to right-wing groups that backed the effort to block debt relief.
Alito did not recuse and ultimately sided with his fellow right-wing justices late last month on a ruling that struck down Biden’s debt cancellation plan, denying relief to more than 40 million borrowers.