New bill would require Supreme Court to create a code of conduct amid recent controversies

The move comes as Justice Thomas faces scrutiny over his ties to a GOP donor.

April 26, 2023, 11:11 AM

Two Senate lawmakers have unveiled bipartisan legislation to require the Supreme Court create a code of conduct amid recent controversies surrounding Justice Clarence Thomas.

The high court is the only branch of government that operates without a code of conduct. Senators Angus King, I-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, on Wednesday introduced a bill to change that.

"A healthy democracy requires trust: trust in systems, trust in institutions, and trust in leaders. Americans deserve to have confidence that every part of their government -- especially the highest court in the land -- is acting in an ethical manner," King said in a statement.

Murkowski, too, said it's "critical the public has full faith that their institutions are functioning, including the judicial branch."

The legislation would force the court to create a code of conduct, post it publicly online and appoint an individual tasked with handling any complaints of potential violations.

However, it doesn't lay out what those rules should be -- instead giving the court the power to enact its own guidelines.

PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, April 6, 2023.
The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, April 6, 2023.
Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters, FILE

The court is facing fresh scrutiny over Justice Thomas' ties to wealthy Republican donor Harlan Crow. ProPublica reported Thomas for years has accepted luxury trips and private travel from the donor and didn't report it on his annual financial disclosure filings.

Thomas has said it's been his understanding that "this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable."

The revelation was met with swift condemnation from Democrats.

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will hold a hearing next week regarding the ethical rules that govern the nine justices and possible reforms to those rules.

Durbin invited Chief Justice John Roberts to testify, warning Roberts the "status quo is no longer tenable."

Roberts on Tuesday declined the invitation, stating such a scenario would be "exceedingly rare."

The chief justice also sent Durbin a five-page statement signed by all nine justices detailing the court's ethics and practices. Roberts said they all adhere to it, despite there being no independent enforcement of such rules.

In the statement, the justices wrote they aimed to provide clarity on how they address ethical issues, stating they look to "judicial opinions, treatises, scholarly articles, disciplinary decisions, and the historical practice of the court and the federal judiciary" or advice from colleagues.

It's unclear if King and Murkowski's bill will gain traction in Congress, as Republicans have been less critical of the Thomas controversies. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last week he had "total confidence" in Roberts to handle any internal issues that arise at the court.

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