Two Democratic lawmakers announced legislation today that would shake up the ways that U.S. Supreme Court justices handle ethical questions.
The legislation would require the Judicial Conference to set up a process for taking in ethics complaints about the justices, and for investigating those complaints. It would require justices to explain their decisions to recuse or not recuse from a case, and if a justice has turned down a motion to disqualify, it would allow the rest of the Court to disqualify the justice.
Lawmakers and ethics experts have for decades questioned the way the Supreme Court handles ethics issues — that is, internally and with varying degrees of disclosure. Click here for a story in Legal Times from 2005, amid a rash of recusals related to stock ownership, and here for a story from last month.
The latest push comes as liberal advocacy groups have increased their scrutiny of Justice Clarence Thomas, his wife’s advocacy work and his attendance at an event organized by energy executive and conservative donor Charles Koch. Last week, more than 100 law professors signed a letter (PDF) favoring ethics legislation aimed at the Supreme Court.
“Every week it seems, we have a new reason for this Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, to take seriously the growing problem of potential conflicts of interest on that court, especially as it seeks to take on some of the most important legislative acts passed by this Congress,” Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the bill’s chief sponsor, said at a news conference.
Murphy said the justices’ recusal decisions leave the public with too little information. “There is often a mystery as to why a recusal doesn’t happen, and there is often mystery as to why a recusal does happen,” he said.
The legislation would subject justices to the same Judicial Conference code of conduct that governs other federal judges. By tradition, the justices already abide by it, as we reported in 2005, and the justices are covered by the federal statute governing conflicts of interest for federal judges.
“The highest court should not be held to the lowest standards,” Arn Pearson, vice president of Common Cause, said during the same news conference. Common Cause has been sharply critical of Thomas in recent weeks.
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) is a co-sponsor of the legislation. No Republicans have signed on to it, though some GOP lawmakers have pushed for the creation of an inspector general within the judicial branch.
Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said the Court has no comment.
Updated at 4 p.m. with additional reporting.