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Senate Judiciary panel considering ethics rules for the Supreme Court


Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a new ethics code for the Supreme Court, an attempt to respond to recent revelations about justices’ interactions with wealthy donors and others. Republicans are strongly opposed, arguing the ethics bill could “destroy” the high court.

The legislation, which the panel is expected to vote on Thursday, would impose new ethics rules on the court and a process to enforce them, including new standards for transparency around recusals, gifts and potential conflicts of interest. Democrats first pushed the legislation after reports earlier this year that Justice Clarence Thomas participated in luxury vacations and a real estate deal with a top GOP donor — and after Chief Justice John Roberts declined to testify before the committee about the ethics of the court.

Since then, news reports also revealed that Justice Samuel Alito had taken a luxury vacation with a GOP donor. And The Associated Press reported last week that Justice Sonia Sotomayor, aided by her staff, has advanced sales of her books through college visits over the past decade.

Opening the committee meeting, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said the legislation would be a “crucial first step” in restoring confidence in the court. He said that if any of the senators sitting in the room had engaged in similar activities, they would be in violation of ethics rules.

“The same is not true of the justices across the street,” Durbin said.

Even though the ethics legislation has little chance of passing the Senate — it would need at least nine GOP votes to pass, and Republicans appear united against it — Democrats say the spate of revelations means that enforceable standards on the court are necessary.

“The Roberts court has not been able to clean up its own mess,” said Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, the lead sponsor of the ethics bill.

The legislation comes after years of increasing tension, and increasing partisanship, on the committee over the judiciary. Then-President Donald Trump nominated three conservative justices to the Supreme Court, all of whom were confirmed when Republicans were in the Senate majority and with considerable opposition from Democrats. The court has as a result shifted sharply to the right, overturning the nationwide right to an abortion and other liberal priorities.

In a news conference on Wednesday, Republicans on the committee said they would fight the ethics bill, which they said would undermine the separation of powers and is more about Democratic opposition to the court’s decisions than its ethics. They are expected to offer several amendments to the legislation in the committee meeting on Thursday.

“It’s not about ethics or accountability,” said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a senior Republican on the panel. “It’s about outcomes they don’t like.”

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, said Democrats are trying to “destroy” the Supreme Court as it exists by disqualifying conservatives from some decisions. Congress should stay out of the court’s business, Graham said.

The bill “is an assault on the court itself,” Graham said.

The legislation would mandate a new Supreme Court “code of conduct” with a process for adjudicating the policy modeled on lower courts that do have ethics codes. It would require that justices provide more information about potential conflicts of interest, allow impartial panels of judges to review justices’ decisions not to recuse and require public, written explanations about their decisions not to recuse. It would also seek to improve transparency around gifts received by justices and set up a process to investigate and enforce violations around required disclosures.

Durbin pushed back on the notion that the legislation is about politics, noting he had introduced legislation on Supreme Court ethics reforms more than ten years ago, when the court was more liberal. “The reforms we are proposing would apply in equal force to all justices,” Durbin said.

The current push came after news reports revealed Thomas’ close relationship with Dallas billionaire and GOP donor Harlan Crow. Crow had purchased three properties belonging to Thomas and his family in a transaction worth more than $100,000 that Thomas never disclosed, according to the nonprofit investigative journalism organization ProPublica. The organization also revealed that Crow gifted Thomas and his wife, Ginni, with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of annual vacations and trips over several decades.

Durbin had invited Roberts to testify at a hearing, but he declined, saying that testimony by a chief justice is exceedingly rare because of the importance of preserving judicial independence. Roberts also provided a “Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices” signed by all nine justices that described the ethical rules they follow about travel, gifts and outside income.

While the rules were not new, the statement provided by Roberts said that the undersigned justices “reaffirm and restate foundational ethics principles and practices to which they subscribe in carrying out their responsibilities as Members of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Besides Sotomayor’s push for book sales, the AP reported that universities have used trips by justices as a lure for financial contributions by placing them in event rooms with wealthy donors and that justices have taken expenses-paid teaching trips to attractive locations that are light on actual classroom instruction.

Article Topic Follows: AP National

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