Amid a series of reports about Supreme Court justices failing to disclose luxury trips, real estate deals and other gifts, a key Senate committee is set to consider legislation that would bring sweeping ethics reforms to the high court.
On Thursday, July 20, the Senate Judiciary Committee will mark up and vote on a bill introduced by Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse that would require the court to adopt a code of conduct, create a mechanism to investigate violations of that code, improve disclosure about when a justice has ties to a person or entity appearing before the court and require justices to explain their decisions to recuse themselves from cases.
Senate Democrats are pushing for clearer ethics standards for Supreme Court justices, including what gifts and travel justices cannot accept and when justices must recuse themselves from cases because of potential conflicts of interest.
"By making sure the highest court in the land doesn't have the lowest ethical standards, our legislation will be a key first step in restoring confidence in the Supreme Court," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the panel's chairman, said.
Whitehouse, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, and Federal Rights, has pushed for the legislation in the wake of toreports about how the judges have benefited from being on the bench.
Those include stories from ProPublica that conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito failed to report vacations and other benefits from Republican megadonors, as well as an investigation from the Association Press that found court staff encouraged schools where liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor was speaking to buy large quantities of her books.
"Supreme Court ethics is at a crisis moment right now," Kedric Payne, vice president at the Campaign Legal Center, told Spectrum News. "The constant drip of ethics scandals have been ongoing for almost a year now, and it stands out as the only branch of the federal government that does not have a code of conduct."
Payne, who testified before the Senate committee about this issue in May, says the bill under consideration is an important step forward.
"This is a big deal," Payne said. "This legislation can make a difference if it is passed, and this is the time for something to be done to stop the constant drip of these ethics scandals that are coming out of the court and diminishing the public's trust."
According to a Gallup survey, Americans' trust in the federal judiciary is at a record low. Just 47% of those polled trust the judicial branch, and the Supreme Court has a 58% disapproval rating.
"The idea is that there would be a deterrent effect, that when the justices know that they have to be transparent, they will not engage in an activity that could create the conflicts of interest in the first place," Payne told Spectrum News.
Some Republicans have framed the bill as an attack on the conservative-leaving court by Democrats who are unhappy with its rulings, and they argue that Congress lacks the authority to regulate another branch of government.
Without significant Republican support, the bill would have little chance of passage.