Sacramento Bee: California Democrats want Supreme Court ethics standards. Will Republicans support it?
By Gillian Brassil
After a series of reports detailing undisclosed perks enjoyed by Supreme Court justices, Congress wants to strengthen ethical requirements for the nine justices.
The Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act, passed Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote, would establish an investigative process for misconduct; heighten recusal requirements; strengthen disclosure rules for gifts, travel, hospitality or other actions that might influence decisions, and require the Court to adopt a binding code of ethics.
Right now, the Supreme Court does not have an enforceable ethics code. Federal law requires justices to file annual financial disclosures, including information on gifts, with minimal exceptions. Senators think what’s in place is not stringent enough.
Tougher rules are not new to federal officials, says Sen. Alex Padilla, a California Democrat on the committee who co-sponsored the legislation. He called it “desperately needed ethics reform for the Supreme Court.”
Legislation follows recent reports that detailed expensive gifts and travel offered to Supreme Court justices. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chairman of the committee, pointed to reports that Justice Clarence Thomas traveled on a billionaire GOP donor’s yacht and jet, Justice Samuel Alito took a luxury fishing trip to Alaska, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor used tax-funded staff to push book sales.
The committee’s approval means the proposal will be considered by the full Senate. Still, it might be hard to get the bill to become law. Most Republicans have resisted the effort, suggesting a difficult path in the slimly-Democratic Senate and GOP-controlled House of Representatives.
In response to people who claim the Court should implement its own ethics rules, Padilla said, “They’ve been afforded that opportunity.”
The committee invited Chief Justice John Roberts to speak about ethics, which he has not yet done. Padilla said that, if it came to it, he would support a subpoena to get the judge to attend. Ideally, he said, the Court would engage in coming up with a code of ethics.
“In short of that, the Senate and Congress needs to act,” he said.
Committee Republicans, who all voted “no,” said the legislation is an attack for recent rulings that Democrats don’t support, such as overturning federal abortion protections and rescinding race-conscious college admissions.
GOP members of the committee introduced a series of failed amendments, including provisions to cap the number of justices at nine and restrict journalists’ access to the court. One would create a new federal crime for leaking confidential judicial work.
“The amendment presents significant First Amendment concerns in limiting speech, especially of journalists, who publish leaks from the Supreme Court which may be one of significant public interest (who) could face significant imprisonment under this amendment,” California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, another member of the committee who is also sponsoring the legislation, said of the amendment to limit leaks.
Feinstein at one point accidentally voted for a Republican amendment to include ethics rules on stocks for members of Congress and the executive branch before Durbin corrected her. Durbin previously argued it went outside the legislation’s scope.
Padilla said after the hearing Republicans were using amendments to exploit the measure for political points.
“They’re looking to the next election cycle,” he said.
All members ultimately supported an amendment to condemn racist remarks.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., proposed an amendment to condemn comments directed at Justice Clarence Thomas, a Black man.
Democrats took issue with singling out Thomas when other members of the court have faced discrimination. Republicans contended that Thomas has faced unique racism from high profile Democrats, citing in one instance where Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is also Black, compared Thomas to a house slave character portrayed in “Django Unchained.”
“How can you not condemn a statement calling Justice Clarence Thomas a house slave?” Kennedy shouted. “Come on, folks.”
Since the Court’s inception, there have been four justices who were not white. Three of them currently serve: Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson, Sonia Sotomayor and Thomas.
After a heated back and forth, all members agreed to an amendment that condemned discrimination aimed at all current and former justices, preserving naming Thomas within the amendment. “It should apply equally across the board and not just be offered to protect or defend one particular justice,” Padilla said after the hearing.
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