Sen. Thom Tillis Calls for Supreme Court to Reform Ethical Standards
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) is joining Democratic calls for the Supreme Court to reform its ethical standards in light of revelations that justices have accepted ethically questionable gifts while serving on the high court.
Justices are bound by federal disclosure laws for gifts above a certain monetary value, but the Supreme Court does not have an ethical code like the ones followed by the executive and legislative branches.
Democratic Demands for Reform
A series of reports from ProPublica detailing lavish trips Justice Clarence Thomas accepted from GOP donor Harlan Crow has fueled Democratic calls for reform on the federal bench. Those demands were renewed on Wednesday when the outlet published an article detailing a luxury fishing trip Justice Samuel Alito accepted in 2008.
Republicans have widely dismissed the articles as partisan hit pieces, given their focus on the court’s conservative judges, and have defended the conduct of those justices.
Yet Tillis, a member of the Judiciary Committee, believes the drip, drip of articles is becoming a distraction for Republicans that damages the reputation of the Supreme Court.
Without addressing the merit of each case, he said Chief Justice John Roberts should take steps to address the perception of conflicts of interest.
“I think he needs to just step back, look at the political narratives now. This is not helpful for the court’s credibility, and I don’t think it’s particularly onerous,” Tillis told the Washington Examiner. “And I think that having them come up with reforms to govern themselves would be better than having Congress come up with reforms and appear to have it forced on them.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, has introduced legislation to impose stricter ethical standards on justices, while the committee’s chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), is holding a series of hearings on Supreme Court ethics.
Roberts, in declining to testify before the Senate, sent a letter to Durbin in April outlining the ethical standards the high court already holds itself to, yet the five-page document did not satisfy Democrats on the Judiciary Committee.
The panel announced on Wednesday that it will mark up Whitehouse’s legislation after the July 4 recess.
“We hope that before that time, Chief Justice Roberts will take the lead and bring Supreme Court ethics in line with all other federal judges,” Durbin and Whitehouse said in a statement, referring to the Code of Judicial Conduct that binds most federal judges. “But if the Court won’t act, then Congress must.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, framed the ProPublica report as part of a long campaign against the court’s conservative justices.
“They’ve been after everybody from Clarence Thomas to anybody they can get their teeth into to try to undermine the credibility of the court,” he said on Wednesday.
Tillis framed the issue even more broadly, saying Democratic hostility toward the Supreme Court, which now leans decidedly to the right after then-President Donald Trump appointed three justices, is part of broader political attacks on American institutions.
He invoked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) warning Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, both Trump appointees, last year that they would “pay the price” if they voted to roll back abortion access.
“I think, generally, there’s been an attack on the Department of Justice. There’s been an attack on the FBI, and now there’s an attack on the Article III branch,” he said. “Chuck Schumer calling out members by name a year ago this week — it’s gotten politicized, and you can take all of these political barbs off the table through self-governance.”
Cornyn, like Tillis, expressed hope that Roberts would address the perceived ethical lapses rather than Congress.
“This is not something that the Congress has any authority over — this is something the court itself needs to come to grips with,” he said.
The focus on credibility is one lawmakers bet will resonate with Roberts, who is notorious for caring about the institutional reputation of the Supreme Court. He acknowledged in May that there was more the justices could do to uphold its ethical commitments and, without providing detail, said the court is “continuing to look at the things we can do to give practical effect to that commitment.”
“I think he cares a lot about the integrity and the reputation of the court,” Tillis said. “This, to me, is an easy thing for the court to address.”
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