Capitol Hill is hungry for a code of conduct to guide Supreme Court justices

Washington — Momentum on Capitol Hill is building behind a congressional response to revelations that Virginia “Ginni” Thomas pushed former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to pursue efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, with lawmakers arguing the communications between the two underscore the need for a code of conduct for Supreme Court justices.

Legislation that would require the crafting of a set of ethics standards for members of the nation’s highest court has been introduced in each Congress since 2011, according to Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, an organization that advocates for more judicial transparency and accountability. However, there’s a growing interest from Democrats in both houses to pass a bill that would require justices to follow a code of ethics to guarantee impartiality and transparency.

“This is a big domestic issue, losing the trust of one of the nine Supreme Court justices, and it’s something I think that has broken through,” Roth told CBS News. Roth said that there has been nothing comparable in the judicial ethics system for a long time. So now is the right time. The ethics of Justice Thomas are not the only problem. Now is the right time. Democrats seem to be huddling. There should be hearings. It should take a long time and there must be pressure. “

A congressional aide told CBS News that Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy’s office is working to gain more cosponsors for his bill, the Supreme Court Ethics Act, which would require the Judicial Conference of the United States to create a code of ethical conduct for Supreme Court justices and federal court judges.

Supreme Court Thomas Wife
In this Sept. 20, 2019, file photo, Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, right, and wife Virginia “Ginni” Thomas arrive for a State Dinner with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington.

Patrick Semansky / AP

The proposal, a version of which has been introduced in the House by Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia, has support from the chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, but has not yet received any Republican backing. While the plan would likely win approval from the Democrat-controlled House, it faces a more difficult path in the Senate, where support from at least 10 Republicans would be needed for it to advance.

“It’s going to be a challenge in the Senate,” Roth said. My hope is that the push for cosponsors, hearings in both the House and Senate will suffice to force Chief Justice Roberts into a code of ethics. It is certainly more momentum than what we have seen previously. “

In remarks on the Senate floor in support of his bill Thursday, Murphy called it “unacceptable” there is no binding code of conduct and no clear standards of recusal for members of the Supreme Court.

” I think my Democratic-Republican colleagues can all agree that the American people should know that the Supreme Court justices of the United States are held to the highest standards regardless of whether they were appointed by Democratic presidents and justices chosen by Republican presidents,” said he. It’s no longer enough to trust the Court to enforce a secret code of ethics. It is impossible for the highest court of the land to be exempted from the same standards that we expect every federal judge to. “

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Tuesday that he believes there should be “some kind of code of conduct” for Supreme Court justices, while Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said a formal set of ethics rules for high court members is “long overdue.”

First on the agenda for the judiciary panel, though, is the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said.

“It’s a matter of concern,” he told reporters of a code of conduct for the justices. It will be an issue that is addressed after Easter recess. “

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, said Thursday she wants the House to move a standalone bill requiring a code of ethics on the Supreme Court.

“If your wife is an admitted and proud contributor to a coup of our country, maybe you should weigh that in your ethical standards,” she said, a reference to Ginni Thomas.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of attempting to “nullify the presence of Justice Thomas on the court” by calling for his recusal and expressed confidence in his impartiality.

” This performative outrage has not been in the making. McConnell stated Wednesday that this is part of the liberals’ long-running quest to delegitimize court. This was because the laws and constitution sometimes inconvenience Democrats’ radical agenda.

Still, the appetite on Capitol Hill to create a code of conduct for members of the Supreme Court has grown this week following revelations by CBS News and the Washington Post that Ginni Thomas, wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, exchanged 29 text messages with Meadows in the weeks following the 2020 presidential election and as President Trump ramped up efforts to subvert the transfer of power by claiming the election was rife with voter fraud. In one message, Ginni Thomas said that Democrats are committing “the greatest heist in our history” while encouraging Meadows to continue to fight for the reverse of the election. Unfounded claims that the election had been stolen were also mentioned by Thomas.

Ginni Thomas’s messages came during a period over which Mr. Trump and his allies pledged to ask the Supreme Court to toss out electoral votes from key battleground states. The high court declined to intervene in a slew of disputes filed by Republican officials in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. The high court rejected two legal challenges against Pennsylvania’s election regulations that were brought by Trump’s aides. Thomas and Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch said they would have had the opportunity to hear the cases. In a dissent Thomas said that the Supreme Court’s decision was “baffling”. He also stated that it encourages confusion and the erosion of voter trust. “

Trump also asked the Supreme Court in late 2021 to intervene in a court battle against the House select committee investigating the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, which requested reams of his White House records related to the events of January 6. But in January, the high court declined to block the release of the documents. Thomas claimed he would grant Trump’s request for the withholding of records. However, he didn’t provide any explanation.

Thomas’s involvement in the cases has come under scrutiny, and Democrats have called on him to recuse himself from future disputes that come before the Supreme Court involving the January 6 attack.

” I think he should be recused,” Schumer stated. “The information we know right now raises serious questions about how close Justice Thomas and his wife were to the planning and execution of the insurrection.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington, spearheaded a letter with 22 other Senate and House Democrats calling on Thomas to recuse himself from future cases involving the January 6 insurrection and explain why he declined to step aside from proceedings involving the 2020 election and attack.

The bicameral group of Democrats also asked Chief Justice John Roberts to commit no later than April 28 to creating a code of conduct for the Supreme Court.

“[G]iven the recent disclosures about Ms. Thomas’s efforts to overturn the election and her specific communications with White House officials about doing so, Justice Thomas’s participation in cases involving the 2020 election and the January 6th attack is exceedingly difficult to reconcile with federal ethics requirements,” they wrote to Thomas and Roberts.

While there is a code of conduct for federal judges, which was adopted by the Judicial Conference in 1973, it does not cover members of the Supreme Court. According to the rules, a judge must “remain upright and not appear improprious in any activity.” Federal law also requires justices and judges to recuse themselves from proceedings in which their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned,” such as if their spouse has “an interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding. “

Roberts in his year-end report from 2011 said Supreme Court justices do consult the code of conduct in assessing their ethical obligations, and Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan told Congress in 2019 members of the high court follow the code.

Recusal decisions, meanwhile, are made by the individual justices, and they rarely offer explanations for disqualifying themselves from proceedings or declining to step aside.

Roth supports the creation of an code of conduct for the Supreme Court. He also wants to expand the recusal law and require that justices briefly explain why they made their decision.

” I know it is hard to find time and the Democrats will likely lose either one or both of their houses. But, the obligation is to make sure that justices are listened to by people who really matter, care about, and who listen. He said that Congress would play a major role in this.

President Biden’s Commission on the Supreme Court studied proposals for both recusal reform and a code of conduct for the Supreme Court, adopted internally or imposed externally.

The commission wrote in its final report that “not having a formally adopted code might not be best practice for the court,” and the adoption of one “could promote important institutional values.”

But when examining whether to require reasons for recusal, the panel said such a requirement could “force justices in some situations to divulge private matters” and might “have the appearance or effect of lobbying the other justice.” The commission stated that Congress and the Supreme Court may require only a brief statement, but not specific information.

The panel submitted its examination of proposals to reform the Supreme Court to Mr. Biden in December, though it’s unclear whether he has read the report and if he would support any of the reforms that have been suggested.

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