Democrats urge US Supreme Court ethics reform as panel set to vote

By John Kruzel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Democrats on Thursday sought to make the case for legislation to mandate a binding ethics code for the U.S. Supreme Court after revelations that some conservative justices failed to disclose luxury trips and real estate transactions, with a Senate panel set to vote on the measure.

The bill, however, faces Republican opposition that may doom its chances even if it is approved by the Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Debate on the bill was ongoing.

“They are the most powerful judges in America,” Senator Dick Durbin, the committee’s Democratic chairman, said of the justices. “And yet they are not required to follow even the most basic ethical standards.”

Introduced by Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, the bill would impose on the top U.S. judicial body new requirements for financial disclosures and for recusal from cases in which a justice may have a conflict of interest. It would require the justices to adopt a code of conduct as well as create a mechanism to investigate alleged violations.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, in a speech on the Senate floor said, “Holding Supreme Court justices to high ethical standards should not be a partisan issue. On the contrary, both sides should leap at the opportunity to do whatever we can to protect the public’s trust in our system of justice.”

Some Republican senators have sought to portray the ethics reform push as an effort by liberals and Democrats to smear the court as its 6-3 conservative majority continues to steer the law in a rightward direction.

“This is a bill not designed to make the court stronger or more ethical. This is a bill to destroy a conservative court,” Senator Lindsey Graham, the committee’s top Republican, said on Thursday.

Unlike other members of the federal judiciary, the Supreme Court’s nine life-tenured justices have no binding ethics code of conduct. They are subject, as many high-level federal officials are, to disclosure laws requiring them to report outside income and certain gifts, though food and other “personal hospitality” such as lodging at an individual’s residence is generally exempted.

Justices also decide for themselves whether to step aside from cases involving a possible conflict of interest.

The legislation would face long odds to win passage on the Senate floor, where it would need some Republican support to advance. And it appears to have little chance to get through the Republican-led House of Representatives.

Recent reporting in ProPublica detailed decades-long ties between conservative Justice Clarence Thomas and billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow, as well as conservative Justice Samuel Alito’s failure to disclose a private flight to Alaska provided by a billionaire hedge fund manager.

The news outlet Politico reported that conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch did not disclose that the chief executive of a major law firm whose lawyers have appeared before the Supreme Court bought a Colorado property in which Gorsuch had a stake. In addition, the Associated Press reported that aides to liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor promoted sales of her books in conjunction with her speaking events.

Republican committee members have said the court should set its own rules and have questioned whether lawmakers possess the power to impose ethics standards on it under the U.S. Constitution’s division of powers among the federal government’s executive, legislative and judicial branches.

(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)