The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved legislation that would impose tough new ethics rules on judges, overcoming fierce objections from Republicans to address a series of revelations about Supreme Court justices taking free luxury travel and receiving other financial benefits from wealthy benefactors. .
The legislation, which has little chance of moving forward given strong GOP opposition, would require the high court to, at a minimum, adopt and adhere to ethics and disclosure rules equivalent to those applied to members of Congress. It would also impose new transparency requirements and create a panel of appellate judges to look into complaints of misconduct filed against judges. Democratic members of the committee said action was needed because the court refused to oversee on its own.
« This legislation will be a crucial first step in restoring trust in the court after a steady stream of reports of ethical failures of justice, » Senator Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and committee chair, said of the bill. law, which was approved by a party vote.
Republicans accused Democrats of trying to « destroy » the conservative-dominated court and undermine its credibility in a fit of resentment over decisions on abortion rights, the environment, civil rights and federal power a which Democrats opposed. They said she had no chance of becoming law.
« This bill is going nowhere, » said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the senior Republican on the committee, who said the legislation « would fundamentally change the way the court operates. »
He and other Republicans on the panel said the legislation is a blatant violation of the constitutional separation of powers because it would allow lower court justices to try justices who review and sometimes overrule lower court decisions. They said lawyers would try to use the new rules to force judges to recuse themselves and bog down the court.
« I think our founders are rolling over in their graves, » said Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas.
Democrats have admitted the legislation cannot pass in the current Senate, where it would need 60 votes, and has no prospects in the Republican-controlled House. But they said the debate would focus attention on ethical issues in the high court and could build momentum for future congressional action.
« We are here because the highest court in the land has the lowest standards of ethics in the entire federal government and judges have exhibited very improper behavior, not least in hapless efforts to excuse wrongdoing, » Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said, Democrat of Rhode Island and the lead author of the bill. “This cannot go on. Defending this behavior defends the indefensible.
The row was the latest confrontation on the court in a commission that has seen increasingly partisan fighting over judicial appointments and the confirmations of the judges themselves. Mr. Graham suggested earlier this week that a Democrat’s decision to push the ethics legislation forward, despite the fact that it couldn’t pass Congress, was likely to lead to less Republican cooperation on the panel.
The Democratic push followed a series of reports showing Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel A. Alito taking lavish vacations and private jet trips courtesy of billionaires and not disclosing them. In Judge Thomas’s case, a Republican mega-donor, Harlan Crow, also paid for a relative’s education and bought real estate from the justice.
Sen. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, said his constituents have expressed surprise that judges could receive such benefits, much less not disclose them.
« Disclosure is the bare minimum, and that should apply to anyone who is a judge, » he said.
In defending the trips, the judges said they felt they shouldn’t report them because of their social relationships with those footing the bill. And Republicans pointed to a clarification earlier this year to the code of ethics governing judges in federal courts other than the Supreme Court who must disclose free stays at commercial properties.
The high court is not bound by that judicial code of ethics due to its special constitutional status. But in a letter to the committee earlier this year, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the high court « takes guidance » from the code of ethics followed by lower courts.
Republicans said the ethics legislation was the latest installment in a Democratic push to fuel public anger at the court. They repeatedly noted that New York Democrat and Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer appeared at a 2020 abortion rights rally outside the Supreme Court, singled out Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh, and he said he had « released the whirlwind » and « will pay the price » if they take away abortion rights.
The comments drew a stinging rebuke from Chief Justice Roberts, and the next day Mr. Schumer took them back, saying he intended there would be political consequences.
« This bill is not about oversight or accountability, » said Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican and former Judiciary Committee chairman. « It’s about harassing and intimidating the Supreme Court. »
But Democrats said they were simply trying to clear an ethics cloud hanging over the court and noted that ethics questions had been raised against both Republican- and Republican-appointed judges. Democrats.
« The highest court in the country should be an example, » said Senator Mazie K. Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii.
Before passing the legislation, Democrats in committee rejected a series of Republican amendments intended to kill it.
Despite the committee’s approval, Mr. Schumer did not commit to bringing the ethics legislation to the floor for a showdown, which could hinder or slow down other items to pass. Action is unlikely to happen anytime soon, as the Senate is trying to advance bipartisan legislation on Pentagon policy and spending, among other issues.
But Mr. Schumer on Thursday reiterated his support for the bill.
« The American people agree that judges sitting on the highest court in the land should be held to equally high ethical standards, » he said.