Padilla, Warren, Jayapal Introduce Bill to Reform Broken Judicial Ethics System

Bicameral legislation would reform the judicial ethics system including by overhauling the judicial recusal process, imposing a code of conduct on the Supreme Court, and banning federal judges from owning individual stock

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senators Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), along with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and several of their colleagues, introduced the bicameral Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act to overhaul our nation’s judicial ethics laws and restore public faith in our court system.

“The legitimacy of our federal judiciary depends on the faith and trust that Americans place in our judges,” said Senator Padilla. “But that trust is eroded if judges, including the Justices of the Supreme Court, are not subject to and abiding by ethical standards that ensure transparency and accountability. It’s time for Congress to act and ensure that such standards are in place and followed.”

“I’ve been fighting to reform our judicial ethics system for years. At a time when public trust in the Supreme Court has collapsed to historic lows, it’s critical that we enact legislation to reform this broken system. From banning federal judges from owning individual stocks to overhauling the broken judicial recusal process, my bill would help root out corruption and restore public trust in the federal judiciary – something that Chief Justice Roberts has simply failed to do,” said Senator Warren.

“We can no longer stand by while our judges and justices take advantage of our system to build wealth and power at the expense of our country’s most marginalized. A system without basic ethics is a corrupt system,” said Congresswoman Jayapal. “People deserve impartial judges and justices who aren’t beholden to special interests or to their personal agenda. Nobody is above the law. Not even a Supreme Court Justice. My bill with Senator Warren will reinstate the checks and balances needed to ensure a fair and balanced judicial system that fulfills its promise of equal justice under the law.”

Ethics scandals have plagued our federal courts for decades. Clerks accuse federal judges of sexual misconduct with little to no recourse. Supreme Court Justices accept lavish international trips and fail to file basic financial disclosure reports. Judges and justices alike sit in cases in which they own individual stock in the parties—and in cases that could directly affect their spouses.

The Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act would give Americans confidence that their judges are held to the highest ethical standards and are free from conflicts of interest. Specifically, the bill would:

  • Ban federal judges from owning conflicted assets. To root out financial conflicts of interest, the bill forbids judges from owning individual stocks and securities, commercial real estate, trusts, and private companies, while making exceptions for certain assets such as mutual funds. And the bill establishes accounts for judges to make conflict-free investments that are independently managed by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board.
  • Strengthen restrictions on judicial gifts and privately funded travel. The bill clarifies the definition of “gift” under federal law, sets up a new oversight process for judicial attendance at privately funded events, and creates a Judicial Education Fund to pay for the reasonable expenses associated with attending approved events.
  • Require the Supreme Court to adhere to a binding Code of Conduct. The bill imposes the existing Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges on the Supreme Court, the only court in the country not currently subject to an ethical code.
  • Improve disclosure in the federal judiciary. The bill provides more information to the public regarding judicial speeches and case assignments, while mandating the livestreaming of court proceedings and new judicial workplace surveys.
  • Overhaul the broken judicial recusal process. The bill requires Supreme Court Justices to issue written recusal decisions whenever a litigant requests recusal and requires the Judicial Conference to issue advisory opinions with their recusal recommendations. And the bill creates a new recusal process for lower court judges, forbidding judges from making their own recusal decisions and requiring courts to issue written recusal decisions.
  • Create new mechanisms for judicial accountability. The bill closes the loophole that allows judges to escape accountability by retiring from the bench, strengthens disciplinary authority for the Judicial Conference, sets up expedited impeachment procedures for federal judges, and allows the public to file complaints against Supreme Court Justices—like all other federal judges—through a new Supreme Court Complaints Review Committee.
  • Restrict courts from sealing public health and safety records. The bill limits the ability of courts to seal records that contain important information for the protection of public health or safety, often concealed at the urging of massive corporations.

Senator Padilla also joined Senator Warren and Representative Jayapal in a recent bicameral letter to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts demanding answers regarding Justice Thomas’s potential violation of federal ethics laws after reporting on the efforts of his wife, Ms. Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

In the U.S. Senate, the legislation is also cosponsored by Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Tina Smith (D-Minn.). In the U.S. House of Representatives, the legislation is also cosponsored by Representatives Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, André Carson (D-Ind.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.), Andy Levin (D-Mich.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas.).

“We’re facing one of the lowest moments in history for our nation’s highest court. At a time when the federal courts are facing a crisis of confidence from the very people they’re created to serve, the bare minimum required to restore the American people’s trust in our judicial system is to weed out corruption and demand that all judges and justices adhere to a code of conduct,” said Senator Markey. “For federal courts to be respected as arbiters of fairness and justice, they must first hold themselves to fundamental standards outlined in the Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act like avoiding conflicts of interest, refusing lavish gifts, acting with transparency, upholding accountability for the actions of judges and justices, and abiding by an ethics code.”

“More than any other branch of government, the courts rely on public trust to operate effectively,” said Senator Smith. “No one before a federal judge should have to think twice about their impartiality or conflicts of interest. This legislation would ensure judges and justices are held to the highest ethical standard and help restore Americans’ faith in the federal judiciary.”

The Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act is endorsed by: Project on Government Oversight (POGO), Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Demand Justice, Public Citizen, End Citizens United/Let America Vote Action Fund, Campaign Legal Center, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, National Council of Jewish Women, Freedom from Religion Foundation, League of Conservation Voters, Revolving Door Project, 20/20 Vision DC, People for the American Way, American Atheists, Center for Popular Democracy, MoveOn, Alliance for Justice, Transparency International U.S., SEIU, Demand Progress, Common Cause, Government Accountability Project.

For full text of the bill, click here.

For a one-pager of the bill, click here.