The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote Thursday on 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 committee’s legislation 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.
Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh look on as President Donald Trump delivers the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. (
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.
"Just about every week now, we learn something new and deeply troubling about the justices serving on the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land in the United States, and their conduct outside the courtroom," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said this week. "Let me tell you, if I or any member of the Senate failed to report an all-expense paid luxury getaway or if we used our government staff to help sell books we wrote, we’d be in big trouble."
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.
People visit the front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building on April 19, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
"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 that if the bill were to ever pass, "the Supreme Court as we know it would be destroyed." Congress should stay out of the court’s business, 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.
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer, Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Elena Kagan, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Justice Amy Coney Barrett and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson attend U.S. President Joe Bidens State of th
Though Democrats had pushed versions of the ethics legislation in the past, 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.