Senate Panel Votes in Favor of Supreme Court Ethics Reform

July 20, 2023

Will the passage of the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act rebuild trust in the Supreme Court?

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted along party lines to advance legislation that would mandate a binding code of ethics for the Supreme Court and its nine Justices. 

The U.S. Supreme Court is virtually the only court in the country that does not adhere to a formal code of ethics.

The Democratic-led Senate committee voted 11 to 10 to approve the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who said Wednesday, “Today, in the court that dark money built, the honor system has flagrantly failed. We need to legislate, we need to investigate and we need to fix this mess for the American people.”

Senate Republicans filed 61 amendments to the legislation to drag out the committee’s mark-up for several hours, though the Senators ended up voting on fewer than a dozen of them,

Among the legislation’s provisions, it would direct the Supreme Court to adopt a code of conduct, adhere to more stringent disclosure requirements and set recusal standards for Justices. It would also set transparency provisions for amicus briefs filed with the Court.

The legislation comes as the behavior of conservative and liberal Justices alike have fallen under scrutiny.

Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito have reportedly accepted six-figure vacations and other expensive gifts from Republican political donors. 

Meanwhile, liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan have reportedly attended events at colleges and universities where they’ve had opportunities to mingle with political donors. Further, Sotomayor has not recused herself when Random House, the publisher of her books, has had several matters before the Supreme Court.

Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) has warned that if Chief Justice John Roberts doesn’t adopt a formal code of ethics for the Court, Congress would create a code for it. 

Even so, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have expressed opposition to mandating ethics for the Court—though they have urged the Justices to create a formal code, themselves.

“I don’t want Congress to start micromanaging the Court, but I think confidence-building would be had if they were more clear on some of this stuff,” said Judiciary Committee Ranking Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) last month.  

A June poll from Quinnipiac University found that national approval of the Court has dropped to a new low, with just 30% of registered voters approving of the Court while 59% disapprove—the lowest rating for the Supreme Court since Quinnipiac started asking the question in 2004.

Further, a poll released Wednesday by the Progressive Change Institute found that about 60% of voters said they were more likely to support 2024 Senate candidates who backed ethics legislation for the Supreme Court.

Read more exclusive news from Political IQ.

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