May 16, 2022

Advocates Hail Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act as Bill Gains Steam in Congress

Alliance for Justice, Fix the Court, Common Cause, POGO, End Citizens United / Let America Vote Action Fund, Free Law Project applaud measure to achieve accountability and transparency in the federal judiciary

Washington, DC – As polling shows Americans’ confidence in the Supreme Court dropping to worrying new lows, leading advocates are lining up to support bicameral legislation to boost transparency and accountability at the Court and throughout the federal judiciary.  Last week, the House Judiciary Committee cleared the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act to set the stage for a vote of the full House in the coming days, while Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) led colleagues to introduce the bill in the Senate. 

The Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act is an updated version of the Twenty-First Century Courts Act, which Senators Whitehouse and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Congressmen Hank Johnson (D-GA), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Mike Quigley (D-IL), David Cicilline (D-RI), and Mondaire Jones (D-NY) introduced in April.  Both the House and Senate Courts Subcommittees held hearings on the bill.

“We applaud this step to rectify the Supreme Court ethics crisis.  It is imperative that our highest court is held to the highest ethical standards – and that the rules for justices are mandated and not optional,” Kimberly Humphrey, Alliance for Justice Senior Legislative Counsel.  “We have witnessed, today and for decades, that optional rules leave our courts in peril.  The failure to adequately respond to conflicts of interest, or appearances of impropriety, greatly damages the public’s trust in the Supreme Court and weakens our democracy.”  

“At a time when the judiciary has outsized power — over our personal privacy and health care decisions, over who can vote and who wins elections, over who can marry and who can unionize and so much more — it is critical that the branch, including those at its apex, are subject to transparency and accountability standards that measure up to its might,” Fix the Court executive director Gabe Roth said.  “The justices and the Judicial Conference have demurred from any meaningful action.  I’m very thankful that Sen. Whitehouse and several of his Senate colleagues have not.”

“The disturbing lack of accountability and transparency at the Supreme Court has undermined confidence in the bedrock principle that no one is above the law.  Our democracy is stronger when everyone abides by fair rules, including those who interpret our Constitution,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, President, Common Cause.  “The Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act puts basic, overdue, and meaningful ethics standards in place, and we commend Senator Whitehouse for introducing this bill.  It ought to have widespread support, no matter one’s party, because justice demands fair courts, including the highest one in the land.”

“A functioning democracy requires an accountable and transparent government that earns the trust of the people, which includes the judiciary,” said Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, Government Affairs Manager at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).  “This is why the Supreme Court is in dire need of reforms that will shore up its effectiveness and its ethical standing with the American people.  The Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act would do just that by requiring a code of conduct for the Supreme Court and creating more accountability and clarity around recusals and conflicts of interest.  Senator Whitehouse and his colleagues are to be commended for their leadership in introducing this bill.”

“Recent events make clear the need for legislation to ensure Supreme Court justices are accountable only to the rule of law, not dark money special interests or lobbyists that spend millions to install their preferred Justices and sway decisions,” said Tiffany Muller, President, End Citizens United / Let America Vote Action Fund.  “We applaud Senator Whitehouse, Senator Blumenthal, and Representative Johnson for their important legislation to restore Americans’ faith in the Court by adding much needed ethics rules and transparency.”

“The Supreme Court Ethics, Recusals and Transparency Act is an important bill that makes sense and is long overdue,” said Michael Lissner, Executive Director of Free Law Project.  “The elements of this bill are ripe, having been discussed and supported by both sides of the aisle for many years. We need clear ethics and recusal rules in the judiciary to ensure the branch is unassailable and accountable — this bill accomplishes that.”

The legislation will address lax recusal standards for judges, weak disclosure rules for special interests filing documents with the courts, poor reporting of travel and hospitality for judges, and the absence of a code of ethics for the Supreme Court.

“The American people are rapidly losing faith in their Supreme Court.  They see justices guided by politics and big special interests, and a judiciary with weak ethics and transparency rules.  We need to address these problems before the courts’ reputation is damaged beyond repair,” said Whitehouse, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Courts Subcommittee upon introducing the bill this week.  “I’m pleased the House has moved this legislation out of committee, and I look forward to continuing Chairman Johnson’s progress here in the Senate.”

Read more about the bill here.

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