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Senate Judiciary Committee to Vote on New Ethics Code Amid Supreme Court Controversy

The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote on Thursday on a proposed ethics code for the Supreme Court, as a response to recent revelations regarding interactions between justices and wealthy donors. This move is met with strong opposition from Republicans who argue that the ethics bill could potentially dismantle the high court.

Under the proposed legislation, the Supreme Court would be subject to new ethics rules and a structured enforcement process. These rules would introduce greater transparency surrounding recusals, gifts, and potential conflicts of interest. The motivation behind this legislation arose after reports earlier this year revealed that Justice Clarence Thomas had engaged in luxury vacations and a real estate deal with a prominent GOP donor. Additionally, Chief Justice John Roberts declined to testify before the committee regarding the ethics of the court, further fueling the Democrats’ push for this legislation.

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Subsequent news reports shed light on Justice Samuel Alito’s luxury vacation with a GOP donor, and it was revealed by The Associated Press that Justice Sonia Sotomayor had utilized college visits to promote sales of her books, aided by her staff over the past decade.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., expressed grave concern over the conduct of the Supreme Court justices, asserting, “Just about every week now, we learn something new and deeply troubling about the justices serving on the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land in the United States, and their conduct outside the courtroom. Let me tell you, if I or any member of the Senate failed to report an all-expense paid luxury getaway or if we used our government staff to help sell books we wrote, we’d be in big trouble.”

Despite the slim chances of the ethics legislation passing in the Senate, as it would require at least nine Republican votes in order to pass, Democrats argue that enforceable standards are necessary in light of these revelations.

Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, the lead sponsor of the ethics bill, declared, “The Roberts court has not been able to clean up its own mess.”

This legislation comes in the wake of escalating tension and partisanship on the committee over judicial matters. During his tenure, former President Donald Trump successfully nominated three conservative justices to the Supreme Court, all of whom were confirmed while Republicans held the majority in the Senate. Consequently, the court has significantly swung to the right, overturning long-standing liberal priorities, such as the nationwide right to an abortion.

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During a press conference on Wednesday, Republicans on the committee expressed their intention to vehemently oppose the ethics bill. They argue that it would undermine the separation of powers and is primarily a response to Democratic disapproval of the court’s decisions, rather than a genuine concern for ethics. In the upcoming committee meeting on Thursday, they are expected to propose several amendments to the legislation.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a senior Republican on the panel, dismissed the ethics bill by asserting, “It’s not about ethics or accountability. It’s about outcomes they don’t like.”

Similarly, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, warned that if the bill were to pass, “the Supreme Court as we know it would be destroyed.” He urged Congress to refrain from interfering in the court’s affairs.

Under the proposed legislation, a new Supreme Court “code of conduct” would be established. The code would include a process for adjudicating policy breaches, drawing inspiration from lower courts that have existing ethics codes. Justices would be required to provide more comprehensive information regarding potential conflicts of interest. Impartial panels of judges would be empowered to review justices’ decisions not to recuse, with public, written explanations demanded for those decisions. The legislation would also improve transparency regarding gifts received by justices and create a mechanism for investigating and enforcing violations related to required disclosures.

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While versions of the ethics legislation have been proposed by Democrats in the past, the recent drive for reform was prompted by news reports detailing Justice Clarence Thomas’ close ties to Dallas billionaire and GOP donor Harlan Crow. ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, revealed that Crow had purchased three properties belonging to Thomas and his family in a transaction worth over $100,000, which Thomas failed to disclose. Furthermore, Crow bestowed Thomas and his wife, Ginni, with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of annual vacations and trips over several decades.

Sen. Dick Durbin invited Chief Justice John Roberts to testify at a hearing, but Roberts declined the invitation, further adding to the controversy surrounding the conduct of the Supreme Court justices. The refusal to testify has only intensified calls for greater accountability and transparency within the highest court in the land.

The revelations surrounding Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s book promotion activities have also raised eyebrows. According to the AP report, universities have used the presence of justices at events as a way to attract wealthy donors, placing them in event rooms alongside these potential contributors. This practice has raised concerns about the potential influence of money on the court and the perception of impartiality.

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Additionally, the report highlighted instances where justices have taken expense-paid teaching trips to attractive locations, which were light on actual classroom instruction. Critics argue that these trips, while providing opportunities for justices to engage with students and scholars, may also serve as a way to enjoy luxurious vacations under the guise of educational activities.

The revelations regarding the conduct of Supreme Court justices have sparked a debate about the need for stricter ethics rules and enforcement mechanisms. Supporters of the proposed ethics code argue that it is necessary to maintain the integrity and public trust in the judiciary. They believe that justices should be held to the same standards of accountability and transparency as other government officials.

Opponents of the legislation, mainly Republicans, argue that it is an overreach of Congress into the affairs of the judicial branch. They contend that the Supreme Court should be able to self-regulate and that the proposed ethics code would undermine the separation of powers. Some Republicans also view the push for ethics reform as a partisan response to the court’s conservative rulings, rather than a genuine concern for ethical conduct.

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The Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote on the proposed ethics code will be a crucial moment in determining the future direction of the Supreme Court’s accountability. However, given the partisan divide and the slim chances of the legislation passing in the Senate, the outcome remains uncertain.

As the debate continues, the conduct of Supreme Court justices outside the courtroom will remain under scrutiny. The public and lawmakers alike will closely monitor any further revelations and developments regarding interactions with wealthy donors, book promotions, and expense-paid trips. The need for transparency, integrity, and ethical conduct within the highest court of the land is a matter of utmost importance to ensure continued trust and confidence in the judiciary.

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