Senate Judiciary Committee advances Supreme Court ethics bill

July 24, 2023

On Thursday, July 20, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced legislation that would require the Supreme Court to adopt an ethics code, with Democrats following through on their pledge for legislative action after a series of reports about Justice Clarence Thomas’ relationship with a Republican real estate magnate, reports CBS News.

Called the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act, the bill from lead sponsor Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse cleared the committee along party lines, 11-10.

During the committee’s consideration of the measure, Republicans introduced several amendments touching on the protests outside Supreme Court justices’ homes, the leak of the draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, Supreme Court expansion, and imposing new rules on reporters who cover the high court.

All of the GOP senators’ proposed changes failed, with the exception of one: An amendment from Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana that, after it was modified, condemns racist attacks and comments against current or former justices, including Thomas, which passed unanimously.

GOP lawmakers have said Whitehouse’s bill is dead on arrival in the full Senate and Republican-controlled House.

The Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act of 2023 would:

  • Require Supreme Court Justices to adopt a code of conduct;
  • Create a mechanism to investigate alleged violations of the code of conduct and other laws;
  • Improve disclosure and transparency when a Justice has a connection to a party or amicus before the Court; and
  • Require Justices to explain their recusal decisions to the public.

U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, and Federal Rights, released the following statement on the vote:

“We’ve been working for 11 years to encourage the Supreme Court to adopt a binding code of conduct for all its Justices, whether appointed by Democratic or Republican Presidents. Chief Justice Roberts had his chance to act, and he refused. Now, we will—and it’s well within our constitutional authority to act. These reforms would apply in equal force to all Justices and—importantly—reinforce the Court’s legitimacy, contrary to the unfounded assertions by Senate Judiciary Republicans. It’s time for the nine Supreme Court Justices to abide by a code of conduct just like every other federal official. We look forward to working with our colleagues on its consideration before the full Senate.”

Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said the legislation would bring Supreme Court justices in line with other federal officials and is a “crucial first step in restoring confidence” in the high court.

“Unlike every other federal official, Supreme Court justices are not bound by a code of ethical conduct. They are the most powerful judges in America and yet they are not required to follow even the most basic ethical standards,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he supports the committee’s work and looks forward to working with his Democratic colleagues “to make progress” on the bill.

“It’s time for the highest court in the land to be held to the highest ethical standards,” he said in a statement. “Today’s markup reaffirms Senate Democrats’ commitment to rebuild our country’s faith in our judiciary and reestablish legitimacy in our courts. We must ensure that the Supreme Court is not in the pocket of the ultra-wealthy and MAGA extremists.”

The proposal, though, is highly unlikely to become law due to the opposition from Republicans in the Senate and House. GOP senators have painted the revelations about Thomas as part of a broader attempt by Democrats to delegitimize the high court’s conservative majority.

Senator Lindsey Graham, the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, put the bill’s prospects in stark terms, saying, “This ill-conceived effort in the name of reforming the court will go nowhere in the United States Senate.

“This is a bill to destroy a conservative court. It’s a bill to create a situation where conservative judges can be disqualified by statute. It’s a bill to rearrange the makeup of how the court governs itself, and it’s an assault on the court itself,” he said during the Judiciary Committee meeting.

Research contact: @CBSNews