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Wednesday, July 3, 2024 | Back issues
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Senate GOP blocks Supreme Court ethics bill

Although the legislation failed to clear a procedural hurdle in the upper chamber, Democrats say this is not the end of efforts to force the Supreme Court into a binding code of ethics.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Senate Republicans on Wednesday successfully spiked a Democrat-led bill that would have forced the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt an enforceable code of ethics, but the legislative push to hold the high court accountable for ethical malfeasance appears far from over.

During a brief evening session, Democrats attempted to pass Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act using a procedural lever known as unanimous consent. The measure was expected to fail using this method — a single senator can object to action brought up on unanimous consent.

And sure enough, a group of Republicans — many of whom were vocal critics of Whitehouse’s bill as it made its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee last year — rose Wednesday to object to its passage.

“Let’s be clear, this is not about improving the court,” said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. “This is about undermining the court.”

The Judiciary Committee ranking member rehashed Republican reservations about the Democratic bill, particularly concerns that it would impede on the constitutional separation of powers between Congress and the Supreme Court.

If made law, the legislation, abbreviated as the SCERT Act, would require the court to draft a binding code of ethics and make it available for public comment. The measure would also establish a review board composed of lower court judges that would adjudicate ethics complaints against the justices.

Democrats have held up the act as a reply to months of reports that several Supreme Court justices engaged in ethically dubious behavior such as accepting lavish vacations and other gifts from prominent conservative figures. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, one of the bill’s main supporters, has long demanded the high court adopt a binding ethics code.

“The highest court in the land should not have the lowest standard of ethics,” he said on the Senate floor Wednesday — a statement that has become something of a catchphrase for the senator in recent months.

But Republicans countered that Democrats were less interested in holding the Supreme Court accountable and more concerned with punishing the justices for a spate of recent conservative rulings.

“I do not believe that most of my colleagues think that this is about ethics. This bill is about abortion,” Louisiana Senator John Kennedy, referring to the Supreme Court striking down the landmark case Roe v. Wade in 2022, rolling back the constitutional right to an abortion. That ruling, Kennedy argued, was partly behind Democrats’ ethics push.

“It’s not just a mountain out of a molehill,” said Utah Senator Mike Lee. “They’re making a mountain out of nothing.”

Although Republicans successfully did away with Wednesday’s attempt to pass Supreme Court ethics reform into law, Democrats were clear that they were not ready to throw in the towel.

Whitehouse told Courthouse News following Wednesday’s meeting that the Senate would continue to investigate the court’s ethics malfeasance and that there could eventually be a floor vote on his bill.

But he signaled that that decision would be at the discretion of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Schumer told Courthouse News Wednesday that he was planning to discuss “the best way forward” with Durbin.

The Senate majority whip blasted Republicans on X, formerly Twitter.

“They’d rather have a Supreme Court riddled with ethical lapses than institute a binding code that applies to every justice,” he wrote.

Until late last year, the high court had no formal ethics code. Chief Justice John Roberts in the fall unveiled a set of ethical standards, but judicial experts have argued that it lacks a clear enforcement mechanism.

Follow @BenjaminSWeiss
Categories / Courts, Government, National, Politics

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