April 3, 2023

Whitehouse Leads Charge to Compel SCOTUS Ethics Reform Through Appropriations Process

Whitehouse and 14 Senate colleagues call on appropriators to address ethics shortfalls in must-pass spending bill amid plummeting public confidence in the Supreme Court

Washington, DC – Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Courts Subcommittee, is leading fourteen senators in calling on the Senate Appropriations Committee to include language in the FY2024 appropriations bill directing the Supreme Court to adopt binding, transparent, and enforceable ethics rules. 

The senators’ effort comes as the Supreme Court has refused to investigate multiple allegations of unethical conduct at the Court.  The Court’s failure to adopt basic ethics reforms runs counter to mounting public pressure and new, ethics rules recently implemented by the Judicial Conference, the policymaking body of the federal courts. 

“It’s well past time for the Supreme Court to join every other federal court by adopting not just an ethics code, but a transparent and thorough process for investigating unethical conduct.  With the American public rapidly losing confidence in their Supreme Court, we cannot let the justices sweep their own self-imposed ethics crises under the rug any longer,” said Whitehouse.  “I hope the Appropriations Committee moves these important reforms forward.”

Joining Whitehouse’s letter are Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Peter Welch (D-VT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Mark Warner (D-VA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Bob Casey (D-PA), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR).

In the absence of the Court’s willingness to bring about ethics reform on its own, the senators’ letter requests the addition of language mandating enforceable, transparent ethics rules for justices of the Supreme Court in the FY2024 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill.  Congress has the authority to compel the Supreme Court to institute such reforms, joining other requirements already legislatively mandated by Congress. 

“The Supreme Court has the tools and authority it needs to develop and implement these changes, including adopting a code of conduct, creating fairer and more transparent recusal rules, and setting up procedures—based on longstanding procedures in the lower courts—to receive and investigate complaints of judicial misconduct,” wrote the senators. 

The letter points to two major incidents from the past year that demonstrate the need for serious ethics reforms.  Late last year, Whitehouse and Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA) engaged in a series of correspondence with the Supreme Court regarding an outside influence campaign – known as Operation Higher Court – exposed by reporting in Politico and the New York Times.  A right-wing religious group, Faith and Action, targeted Republican-appointed justices with lavish gifts from wealthy donors, and allegedly gained advanced knowledge of the Court’s decision in a key case.  Whitehouse and Johnson pressed Chief Justice John Roberts and the Supreme Court’s legal counsel about the lack of adequate ethical and legal standards at the Court, and asked if the Court had reevaluated any of its procedures related to judicial ethics in light of the reporting.  

Last spring, Whitehouse and Johnson also wrote to Chief Justice Roberts requesting that he ensure that Justice Clarence Thomas recuse himself from cases involving his wife’s activities related to the 2020 election and the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.  Thomas refused to recuse himself, or acknowledge the possible conflict of interest, in multiple cases.

In February, Whitehouse reintroduced the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act, legislation that would create a much-needed process for investigating misconduct at the Supreme Court, strengthen recusal standards for judges and disclosure rules for special interests trying to influence the courts, improve disclosure of gifts and travel for judges, and mandate the creation of a binding code of ethics. 

Late last month, the Judicial Conference released updated financial disclosure rules that resolved key parts of the personal hospitality loophole addressed in the SCERT Act, a potential harbinger of more ethics and transparency improvements to come for the Supreme Court.

A PDF copy of the letter is available here.

Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921

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