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Senate Democrats try maneuver to pass Supreme Court ethics bill

Republicans block Wednesday's unanimous consent request

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., talks with reporters in the Capitol last year.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., talks with reporters in the Capitol last year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Democrats attempted to pass a bill on Supreme Court ethics Wednesday but were blocked by Republicans who argue the measure targets conservative justices.

Democrats requested unanimous consent to pass legislation that would require the court adopt a new code of conduct, among other requirements. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., objected to the request, which is all that is needed to stop the move.

Senate Judiciary Chair Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said on the floor that the court faces an “ethical crisis of its own design,” and cited more than a year of stories about the justices, including trips and other gifts taken by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas that were not disclosed under federal ethics law.

Durbin also pointed to Alito’s acknowledgment of recent stories that said flags associated with support for former President Donald Trump were flown outside homes owned by him and his wife.

“Time and again these justices’ actions have cast doubt on their impartiality in cases before the court,” Durbin said.

Wednesday’s effort was the most prominent step so far this year to pass legislation on the Supreme Court, as Democrats have faced increased external pressure from activists in the wake of those news reports.

Durbin said that the court’s adoption of a nonbinding ethics code last year “simply tried to paper over the failed practices of the past.”

The bill Democrats tried to pass, introduced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., would require the court to adopt a new code of conduct, reporting rules for gifts, recusal standards and transparency provisions for amicus brief filers. The bill would also establish a panel of lower court judges to review complaints seeking a justice’s recusal from a case.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the measure on a party-line vote last year, and the then-Democrat controlled House Judiciary Committee advanced a similar bill on a party-line vote last Congress.

Graham and other Republicans argued in floor speeches that Democrats were taking out their frustrations on a conservative-controlled court.

“It is really about the way the court decides cases that our colleagues on the other side of the aisle don’t like,” Graham said.

Graham pointed to several changes adopted by the judiciary, including the adoption of the ethics code and a change to travel disclosure rules, as signs that the court “is taking these problems seriously.”

Aside from the accusations of partisanship, Graham said it was “unnerving” that several provisions in the bill would put lower court judges in charge of hearing complaints about ethical violations or those seeking a justice’s recusal.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., in a floor speech accused Democrats of pushing back on a court that is currently controlled by six Republican appointees because they are unhappy with decisions like the one in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned the constitutional right to an abortion.

“I do not believe that most of my colleagues think that this bill is about ethics. This bill is about abortion,” Kennedy said.

“We should not undermine the integrity of the Supreme Court of the United States because we are unhappy with one of its opinions,” Kennedy said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in a floor speech, called the bill “a solution in search of a problem, which would create a problem for which there is no solution.” Lee called the bill a “very cynical” attempt by liberals with cases before the court this term who wanted to engineer recusals and help get the outcomes they wanted.

Whitehouse introduced the bill prior to the start of the current Supreme Court term, and the Senate Judiciary Committee held its vote before the start of the term.

Whitehouse and other Democrats have introduced similar versions of the ethics legislation for several years, prior to any current cases.

Wednesday’s unanimous consent request came after months of pressure from outside advocacy organizations to hold a full Senate vote on the bill. After the speeches Wednesday, Whitehouse said that was still a possibility.

Democrats’ various other proposals would change the court’s ethical standards, establish an internal ethics officer, establish term limits or expand the court entirely – and almost all have run into uniform Republican opposition.

Democrats have remained sanguine about their chances of passing any of those measures this Congress, and their push for Supreme Court ethics legislation has at times bled into a campaign pitch. At a roundtable about Supreme Court ethics Tuesday, Whitehouse said of his bill and a similar one from Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., “We’re not going to pass them unless the voters put Democrats in charge.”

Still, Democrats have pushed for additional changes. That included at Tuesday’s event, where Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Jamie Raskin, D-Md., mulled introducing more legislation to limit the gifts justices can accept.