Durbin, Whitehouse Announce July 20 Vote in Senate Judiciary Committee on Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, and Federal Rights, today announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee will mark up and vote on Whitehouse’s Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act on Thursday, July 20. The bill would require Supreme Court justices to adopt a code of conduct, create a mechanism to investigate alleged violations of the code of conduct and other laws, improve disclosure and transparency when a justice has a connection to a party or amicus before the Court, and require justices to explain their recusal decisions to the public.
Following a ProPublica report last month that alleged that Justice Samuel Alito accepted and failed to disclose a luxury fishing vacation with GOP billionaire Paul Singer who later had business before the Court, Durbin and Whitehouse announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee would mark up Supreme Court ethics reform legislation during this work period. Today’s announcement follows reporting from the New York Times yesterday that alleges that Justice Thomas received benefits—many of them previously unreported—from a broader cohort of wealthy and powerful associates connected to the Horatio Alger Association.
“Whether you agree or disagree with the most recent historic decisions by the Supreme Court, we hope we can all agree on one thing—these nine justices have extraordinary powers under our Constitution,” said Durbin and Whitehouse. “The belief that they should not be held accountable or even disclose lavish gifts from wealthy benefactors is an affront to the nation they were chosen to serve. To hold these nine Justices to the same standard as every other federal judge is not a radical or partisan notion.”
The Senators’ statement continues, “So to the Supreme Court, we say: we wish you sunny days on your vacation, but your refusal to meet the most basic ethical standards casts a shadow you cannot escape. That is why the Senate Judiciary Committee will mark up Senator Whitehouse’s Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act on July 20. Since the Court won’t act, Congress will.”
In May, the Judiciary Committee held a full committee hearing entitled, “Supreme Court Ethics Reform.” The hearing emphasized the clear need for reform and examined common sense proposals to hold Justices to – at a minimum – the same ethical standards as every other federal judge or high-ranking official in the federal government. Durbin’s opening statement from the hearing is available here and his questions for the witnesses are available here.
Additionally, the Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, and Federal Rights held a hearing entitled, “Review of Federal Judicial Ethics Processes at the Judicial Conference of the United States,” featuring the testimony of the Honorable Mark L. Wolf, Senior U.S. District Judge for the District of Massachusetts. Durbin’s opening statement from the hearing is available here and Whitehouse’s is here. The Subcommittee also held a hearing entitled, “Ensuring an Impartial Judiciary: Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act of 2023.” Durbin’s opening statement from the hearing is available here and Whitehouse’s is here.
Durbin invited Chief Justice John Roberts, or another Justice whom the Chief Justice designated, to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the May 2nd hearing. The Chief Justice declined to appear. In his letter declining Durbin’s invitation, the Chief Justice attached a “Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices” that raised more questions than it answered.
On April 10th, Durbin and his Senate Judiciary Committee Democratic colleagues sent a letter to the Chief Justice urging him to take swift action to address reported conduct by Justices that is inconsistent with the ethical standards the American people expect of public servants. Durbin received a response letter from the Secretary of the Judicial Conference of the United States and it stated that the Senators’ April 10th letter was referred to the Judicial Conference and forwarded to the Judicial Conference Committee on Financial Disclosure.
Durbin and Whitehouse have been calling on the Supreme Court to adopt an enforceable code of conduct for more than a decade. They first sent a letter to the Chief Justice on this issue 11 years ago.
In addition, Whitehouse has engaged in a longstanding oversight effort to ensure transparency and accountability in the federal judiciary, which recently led the Judicial Conference to clarify the very financial disclosure rule Justice Thomas is now accused of abusing.
Congress has an appropriate and well-established role in oversight of the judiciary and updating ethics laws that apply to federal officials, including justices and judges. Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act, which the justices are subject to, and created through statute the Judicial Conference, which administers that law.
Emily Hampsten (Durbin), 202-228-5643
Meaghan McCabe (Whitehouse), 202-224-2921
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