Senate Republicans Block Supreme Court Ethics Measure Pushed by Democrats

Senate Republicans Block Supreme Court Ethics Measure Pushed by Democrats


Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked an effort by Democrats to quickly pass Supreme Court ethics and transparency legislation they had pushed forward in the wake of disclosures about justices taking unreported gifts and travel and other ethical issues surrounding the high court.

The unsuccessful outcome was predetermined, but represented an effort by Senate Democrats to show they were pressing the case against the court. It was also aimed at demonstrating the limits of their power given the narrow divide in the Senate and deep Republican opposition to Congress taking action to impose stricter ethics rules on the justices.

“The ethics crisis at the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, is unacceptable,” Senator Richard J. Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said in calling for the measure to be approved. “It is unsustainable and it’s unworthy of the highest court in the land.”

Republicans assailed the bill as a naked effort by Democrats to undercut the court because of ideological disagreements with its decisions, particularly with major rulings about to be handed down. They accused Democrats of trying to intimidate the justices.

“Let’s be clear: This is not about improving the court, this is about undermining the court,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, who lodged the objection to taking up the bill. “This will be an unconstitutional overreach. This would undermine the court’s ability to operate effectively.”

The move by Democrats came as progressives have been ramping up their demands for more aggressive action in the Senate.

Following widespread media coverage of the ethical issues, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said last November that the court would follow a code of conduct similar to the one that all lower court judges must follow, “to uphold the independence and the integrity of the court.” However, it included no clear way to enforce the rules on justices, sparking criticism that it was hollow.

The Senate Judiciary Committee last summer approved the legislation written by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, after a series of media reports about both Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. taking trips paid for by billionaire benefactors and not reporting them on their disclosure forms. Justice Thomas last week amended his report to acknowledge luxury trips he took in 2019 that were paid for by his longtime conservative ally Harlan Crow.

Justice Alito has also been under scrutiny after The New York Times reported that a flag seen as sympathetic to the “Stop the Steal” movement was flown at his Virginia home. But he has refused to recuse himself from cases related to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, saying the flag was flown by his wife.

The legislation would impose new reporting rules and establish a process for filing ethics complaints against justices, with the complaints heard by a board of federal appeals court justices.

Mr. Graham said that concept was unworkable and would put lower court judges in the position of policing “their bosses.” The legislation also seeks to impose new requirements on recusal and public disclosure mandates on those filing amicus briefs in federal courts to show the financial backing for those making the arguments.

The fight over the court has badly divided the Judiciary Committee. Republicans argue the Democratic proposals are unconstitutional attempts to assert power over a separate branch of government.

Democrats say ample precedent exists for Congress playing a role in establishing rules for the court, but concede that their options are few, given blanket Republican opposition.

They are also trying to confirm about three dozen new federal judges by the end of the year and fear that upheaval over the court could slow that drive.



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