After a meeting Thursday morning, the US Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill that proposes ethics reforms for the Supreme Court, which has recently faced a series of scandals involving Justices Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor and Samuel Alito. Bill S 359—also known as the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act—passed out of the Democratic-controlled committee along party lines. Without any further amendments, however, it faces an uphill battle for passage through the full Senate and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The bill enacts reform on two major fronts by creating a code of ethics and an enforcement mechanism, as well as defining disclosure and disqualification standards for justices.
The bill’s first provision forces the court to adopt a new code of conduct within 180 days of its passage and allows for the public to participate in a notice and comment period. Once created, that code of conduct would then be published to the public, which would allow for individuals to “file with the Court…complaints alleging that a justice of the Supreme Court” violated any provision therein or “has otherwise engaged in conduct that undermines the integrity of the Supreme Court.”
The bill would also establish a “judicial investigation panel” which would be responsible for investigating any such complaints. The panels would be comprised of five randomly selected chief judges from the 13 US circuit courts of appeals. Under the bill, the panel would have the power to conduct hearings, take sworn testimony and issue subpoenas and orders to fulfill their investigatory role.
In a later provision, the bill would also “establish rules governing the disclosure of all gifts, income, or reimbursements…received by any justice.” The disclosure rules mirror those of the Senate and the House of Representatives by requiring the disclosure of any gifts from parties to a proceeding before the court, parties in any way responsible for the nomination, confirmation or appointment of the justice, as well as any party who contributed towards the justice’s spouse, minor child or privately held entity. The bill would also require those filing amicus briefs before the court to disclose a description and value of any gifts, incomes or reimbursements provided to any justice of the court going back as far as two years before the start of the proceeding.
Any party to a proceeding before the court may also file “a timely motion for disqualification” of a justice by including “an affidavit alleging facts sufficient to show that disqualification of the justice…is so required.” Those motions then must be reviewed by the rest of the justices.
The bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday morning with 11 senators voting in favor and the other 10 voting against. While Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) praised the bill as “a crucial first step in restoring confidence in the court,” Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) claimed the bill would destroy the court as it exists.
As it stands now, there is no enforceable code of conduct applicable to the US Supreme Court. The lack of a code has been a central focus over the court’s past term, as both conservative and liberal justices have faced controversy.
Last week, the Associated Press revealed that Sotomayor’s staff frequently pushed public institutions that hosted the justice to purchase her books, which have earned her more than $3.7 million since she joined the court in 2009. ProPublica has also released a series of reports detailing how Alito accepted luxury trips from individuals with business before the court and several similar financial improprieties from Thomas. The Washington Post also revealed how Thomas’s wife, Ginni, accepted over $80,000 from a conservative legal activist shortly before having business before the court.