The Fight Over Supreme Court Ethics Inquiry: Partisan Politics or Necessary Oversight?
The Senate Judiciary Committee had planned to subpoena two conservative allies of Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas as part of an ethics inquiry into undisclosed luxury travel and other benefits provided to the justices. However, Republicans threatened to derail the inquiry with politically charged amendments. This opinion editorial explores the necessity of holding Supreme Court justices to ethical standards and the potential consequences of allowing political interests to interfere with congressional oversight.
The Push for a Binding Ethics Code
Democratic senators, led by Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, have been advocating for Supreme Court justices to adopt a binding ethics code that is at least commensurate with one followed by judges on the lower federal courts. This push gained momentum after multiple reports by ProPublica and other news outlets about Justices Thomas and Alito taking private jet trips for stays at exclusive lodges and other luxury spots without revealing them on their financial disclosures.
The Role of Leonard Leo and Harlan Crow
Leonard Leo, a longtime leader of the Federalist Society, reportedly helped arrange an Alaskan fishing trip for Justice Alito while the billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow also purchased real estate from Justice Thomas. Representatives of the justices say the reporting requirements were unclear, while lawyers for the two men have resisted efforts by the Judiciary Committee to obtain more information from the pair. They argue that the committee is reaching far beyond its power and has no legislative interest in seeking their cooperation.
The Ethics Inquiry and Political Opposition
The planned subpoenas led to heated opposition from Senate Republicans who accused Democrats of abusing their subpoena power and harassing private citizens in an effort to discredit the court and individual justices. Although they planned to draw immigration issues into the fight and require votes to subpoena the staff of Justice Sonia Sotomayor about promoting her personal book sales, along with other hot-button issues, the primary goal of the opposition was to derail the ethics inquiry. The fight over the subpoenas could have taken hours and significantly less cooperation from Republicans on the panel after the planned approval of the subpoenas.
The Need for Congressional Oversight
Senator Durbin and other Democratic senators believe that allowing the two conservatives to brush off the Senate would set a dangerous precedent and raise serious questions about the Supreme Court’s ethical standards. “The highest court in the land cannot have the lowest ethical standards,” Senator Durbin said. He dismissed the idea of delegitimizing the court and stated that Congress has a long history of exercising authority over the management of the federal courts. However, even if the panel authorized the subpoenas, Republicans threatened to block their enforcement on the floor in another combative showdown.
The fight over the ethics inquiry is not just about political power. Rather, it is about holding Supreme Court justices to ethical standards and ensuring they maintain the trust of the American public. While it is natural for political parties to disagree and advocate for their own interests, they should not come at the expense of necessary congressional oversight. The Supreme Court should lead by example in adopting a binding ethics code and affirm that it is equal to the standards followed by judges in lower federal courts. The American public deserves nothing less.
Originally Post From https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/09/us/politics/senate-supreme-court-ethics.html
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