Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has called for a code of conduct to be imposed on the Supreme Court, requiring justices to recuse themselves in cases involving a financial connection between the justice or their family and someone with business before the court.
Whitehouse presents Supreme Court Ethics proposal
Whitehouse presented the proposed Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act (SCERT) of 2023 (S.359) during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, and Federal Rights.
The bill has a companion version in the House of Representatives, introduced by Representative Hank Johnson (D-Ga.).
Whitehouse’s bill has garnered support from 21 senators, including Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Legislation to address ‘lack of transparency’ in the Supreme Court
The legislation addresses concerns regarding potential conflicts of interest and lack of transparency within the Supreme Court.
Whitehouse has criticized conservative justices such as Clarence Thomas, particularly concerning gifts received by Thomas from Republican donor Harlan Crow.
Thomas did not disclose these gifts, asserting that it was not required.
Partisan divide in Supreme Court legislation hearing
The hearing on the proposed legislation was notable for the absence of Republican senators, who have expressed opposition to efforts by Democrats to regulate the Supreme Court through legislation.
Republicans argue that the separation of powers doctrine prevents Congress from regulating justices’ behavior.
At a previous hearing, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, appointed by President George W. Bush, dismissed Democratic concerns about Supreme Court ethics as self-interested and exaggerated.
Whitehouse calls for Ethical Overhaul in Supreme Court
During the hearing, Whitehouse referenced Chief Justice John Roberts’ acknowledgment that the court has more to do regarding ethics and his confidence in finding practical ways to address the issue.
Whitehouse highlighted the need to address concerns related to personal hospitality, conflicts of interest, and the activities of front groups involved in appointing Trump’s justices.
Whitehouse questions Justice Thomas, demands Court transparency
Whitehouse specifically criticized Justice Thomas for his involvement in cases related to the 2020 election and January 6, 2021, events, questioning whether Thomas knew of his wife’s activities and whether he should have recused himself.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the full committee chairman, also spoke during the hearing, emphasizing the importance of restoring public confidence and trust in the Supreme Court through increased transparency.
Whitehouse proposes SCERT Act: Strengthening Supreme Court ethics
The SCERT Act proposed by Whitehouse would require the Supreme Court to establish a code of conduct for its members and direct the Judicial Conference of the United States to issue a code of conduct for judges in other courts.
The legislation would establish a system for public complaints against justices and create a judicial investigation panel to review and investigate those complaints.
Legislation to enhance Supreme Court transparency, disclosure
It would also introduce rules for disclosure of gifts, income, and reimbursements received by justices and allow litigants to file motions to disqualify a judge from a case.
Additionally, the bill would require greater disclosure by parties submitting friend-of-the-court briefs and forbid filing such briefs that could lead to a justice’s disqualification.
The timing of the subcommittee vote on the legislation is currently unknown.