As promised a month ago, a group of Democratic members of Congress have reintroduced a bill to require U.S. Supreme Court justices to follow the same ethical rules as other federal judges.
To sell it, Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), along with Representative Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), are bringing out the same criticisms of Republican-appointed justices that have been batted around for years.
That includes Clarence Thomas' disclosure form flap over his wife's income, and Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia's attending political or fundraising events that the lawmakers say weaken public confidence. Last month, the liberal Alliance for Justice, involved in the push for this legislation, even suggested Alito's controversial eye rolls and head shakes might cross the line.
Slaughter said their "straightforward" and "common sense" bill, called the Supreme Court Ethics Act of 2013, would ensure neutrality and transparency at the country's highest court, during a press conference last week on Capitol Hill.
The bill would make the Code of Conduct for United States Judges mandatory for the Supreme Court. The code, which guides the behavior of lower federal court judges regarding recusals, fundraising and demeanor, has never applied to the justices themselves, although they have said that they look to it for guidance.
"If the code of conduct applied to the Supreme Court much if not all of what we believe are questionable behavior wouldn't have taken place," Slaughter said Thursday. "Because the code sets forth very simple rules such as no political activity, we think that’s very important, no fundraising, and a necessity to avoid even the appearance of impropriety."
Slaughter cited behavior that she said "would seem to violate" the code. In 2008, she noted, Justice Alito headlined the American Spectator magazine's annual fundraising gala and attended again in 2010, and he headlined a fundraiser for the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 2009.
In 2011, Scalia attended an "overtly political gathering of conservative activists" including Charles and David Koch, and the invitation explicitly stated said he would be there and plan how "to change the balance of power in Congress."
And she mentioned Thomas's did not report, on annual financial disclosure forms, his wife's past income from the Heritage Foundation and other sources. Thomas would later correct his omissions with amended financial disclosure forms under a cover letter that said the information was "inadvertently omitted due to a misunderstanding of the filing instructions."
Slaughter said the bill would "ensure the public has faith judicial decision making is based solely on the facts and the law, and not politics and outside influence." Senator Murphy introduced a similar bill when he was a member of the House.
The National Law Journal detailed the same criticisms of Supreme Court justices two years ago in the light of when they should recuse from certain cases. The upshot: The justices decide whether or not to bow out individually, with no requirement to explain, no resort to other justices or the full court, and no precedent to guide them.