May 12, 2022

Whitehouse, Blumenthal, Hirono, Leahy, Feinstein, Schatz, Booker Introduce Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, & Transparency Act

New legislation promotes accountability and increases transparency in the federal courts. Bill has cleared the House Judiciary Committee and awaits action on the House floor in the coming days

Washington, DC – Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have introduced a new version of the Twenty-First Century Courts Act to promote accountability and increase transparency in the federal courts.  The Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act was marked up in the House Judiciary Committee last night, teeing it up for a vote in the full House in the days ahead.

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.  “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.”

“Our courts command no army or police force. They have no power of the purse.  Their authority rests in the American people’s belief in their independence and integrity.  Now, their credibility is hanging by a thread,” said Blumenthal.  “This bill will implement some basic accountability and transparency measures to begin restoring public trust and confidence in our courts – the lifeblood of our judicial branch.  I’m proud to be working with colleagues in both the House and the Senate to move these vital reforms forward.”

Americans across the country are questioning the Supreme Court’s independence now more than ever before,” said Hirono.  “It is clear why—the Court lacks accountability and transparency.  Unlike many federal officials, the Justices are not subject to any code of conduct and they are not required to file financial disclosures.  This bill addresses these shortcomings to support and guide the Justices as they navigate the tough ethical questions they face for generations to come.”

The American people need faith that federal judges are deciding cases based on the law and not their own personal interests or political bias,” said Feinstein.  “Our bill would strengthen recusal and financial disclosure requirements to provide greater transparency.”

Senators Whitehouse, Chris Murphy (D-CT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Blumenthal, and other colleagues have pressed the federal judiciary repeatedly on a range of serious ethics concerns, and offered legislation to address those concerns.  Among the key issues they have pursued are 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—an area where Murphy has led since his time in the House. 

The new legislation would address these shortfalls.  The bill:

Code of Conduct

  • Requires the Supreme Court to adopt a code of conduct within 180 days, or else Congress imposes the lower court code of conduct on the Court;

Recusal

  • Creates new recusal requirements governing gifts, income, or reimbursements given to judges;
  • Creates new recusal requirements governing a party’s lobbying or spending money to campaign for a judge’s confirmation;
  • Ensures that requests for a judge to recuse are reviewed by a panel of randomly selected, impartial judges, or by the rest of the justices at the Supreme Court;
  • Requires written notification and explanations of recusal decisions;
  • Requires the judiciary to develop rules explaining when a judge’s connection to an amicus curiae brief might require recusal;
  • Requires the Federal Judicial Center to study and report to Congress every two years on the extent to which the judiciary is complying with recusal requirements

Financial Disclosure

  • Requires the Supreme Court to adopt rules requiring disclosure rules for gifts, travel, and income received by justices and law clerks that are at least as rigorous as the House and Senate disclosure rules;
  • Requires parties and amici curiae before the Supreme Court to disclose any gifts, travel, or reimbursements they’ve given to a justice;
  • Requires greater disclosure of amicus curiae funding.

In April, Senators Whitehouse and Blumenthal and Congressmen Johnson, Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Mike Quigley (D-IL), David Cicilline (D-RI), and Mondaire Jones (D-NY) introduced the Twenty-First Century Courts Act.  Both the House and Senate Courts Subcommittees held hearings on the bill.

Text of the bill is available here.

Rich Davidson (202) 228-6291 (press office)

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