Durbin to move forward on Supreme Court ethics reform
After Chief Justice Roberts failed to put into effect tighter standards for a court that’s lost the public’s confidence, the number-two Senate Democrat says he has seen enough.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) announced on Thursday afternoon that the Senate Judiciary Committee he chairs will mark up Supreme Court ethics reform legislation this month, a move progressive activists and lawmakers have been pining for in recent months.
“The highest court in the land should not have the lowest ethical standards,” Durbin, who also serves as the number-two Senate Democrat, said in a statement. “Since the Chief Justice [John Roberts] has refused to act, the Judiciary Committee must.”
Durbin said the timing of the vote will be announced early next week. Democrats have a one-seat majority on Senate Judiciary, so the legislation should clear the committee with complete attendance before facing a more ominous fate in the full Senate.
Aron Solomon, chief legal analyst at Esquire Digital, literally texted your Supercreator Daily author “LOL” when asked for a reaction to the news.
“The Senate planning to mark up ethics legislation to check an un-checkable court is laughable,” he said. “It’s going to be an exercise in both futility and comedy.”
Durbin’s announcement comes after a series of bombshell investigative reports from ProPublica in recent months raised ethical questions about a third of the court’s conservative supermajority.
Last month, the nonprofit news organization revealed a previously undisclosed trip Justice Samuel Alito took with billionaire businessman Paul Singer to a luxury fishing resort in Alaska. Legal experts said Alito should have refused himself in cases involving Singer; Alito defiantly defended his behavior in a bizarre preemptive op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
In April, ProPublica published several articles on Justice Clarence Thomas, who accepted nearly annual luxury trips from Harlan Crow, a wealthy Dallas-based real estate investor and prominent Republican donor. The trips included flights on Crow’s private jet, cruises on the billionaire’s yacht, and stays at his private resort and private club. Thomas also sold a house and two empty lots in Savannah, Georgia to Crow but did not report the sale at the time. (Crow’s company also paid for extensive renovations of the house. Thomas’s mother lives in it.) Crow also paid for private school tuition for Thomas’s grandnephew but the justice did not report the gifts on his disclosure forms.
Durbin invited Chief Justice Roberts to testify before the Judiciary committee in May. Roberts declined in a letter with the ethics statement he said all current members of the Supreme Court subscribe to. The same month, Durbin held a hearing on the need for reform and to explore proposals to hold the justices to the same ethical standards as every other federal judge or high-ranking official in the federal government. And in a separate letter to Roberts in April, Durbin and Judiciary Democrats urged the chief justice to take immediate action to address the ProPublica reports on Justice Thomas. The letter was referred to the Judicial Conference and forwarded to the Judicial Conference Committee on Financial Disclosure.
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told reporters before the recess that the reported behavior of Justices Thomas and Alito is both problematic and undermines the confidence in the Supreme Court to fairly administer justice.
The numbers back up Jeffries’ claim: After the Supreme Court ruled to repeal Roe v. Wade last year, public confidence dropped to an all-time low since the General Social Survey began recording this data in 1973.
It’s hard to believe those numbers will trend back up anytime soon after controversial decisions to ban affirmative action in higher education and overturn President Biden’s student debt relief plan last week.
“The only people who apparently believe they are above the law are members of the United States Supreme Court,” Jeffries said. “That’s wrong.”
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose legacy will be a federal judiciary shaped in his image, last month expressed a laissez-faire attitude about the situation.
“The Supreme Court, in my view, can’t be dictated to by Congress,” McConnell told reporters at the time. “I think the Chief Justice will address these issues. Congress should stay out of it because we don’t, I think, have the jurisdiction to tell the Supreme Court how to handle the issue.”
McConnell declined to comment on if he believed there were the required nine or 10 votes in his conference to pass any legislation that made it out of committee to the Senate floor but reaffirmed his confidence in Roberts to look out for the court and its reputation.
Durbin, for his part, has been on an 11-year mission to nudge Roberts into adopting ethics reform on the chief justice’s own terms. However, Esquire Digital’s Solomon doesn’t ultimately see this latest chapter ending any more fruitful than the previous ones.
“It’s a public relations issue of the court’s own creation. Imagine another modern-era Supreme Court perceived as an out-of-control political arm, rather than a responsible, independent judiciary,” he said. “We can’t, really. It’s the court’s mess and they need to clean it.”
And although a majority of Americans polled last year said they either strongly or somewhat favored increasing the number of justices on the Supreme Court, a reform endorsed by leading progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups but currently lacks the votes in Congress, Solomon begs to differ.
“Expanding the court is a hideous solution,” he said. “People need to vote.”
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