Senate Panel Approves Supreme Court Ethics Bill With Dim Prospects

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved legislation that would impose strict new ethics rules on justices, moving over fierce objections from Republicans to address a string of revelations about Supreme Court justices taking free luxury trips and receiving other financial benefits from wealthy benefactors.

The legislation, which stands little chance of advancing given the strong G.O.P. opposition, would require the Supreme Court to, at a minimum, adopt and adhere to ethics and disclosure rules equivalent to those applied to members of Congress. It would also impose new transparency requirements and create a panel of appellate judges to review misconduct complaints made against the justices. Democratic members of the committee said the action was necessary because the court has refused to police itself.

“This legislation will be a crucial first step in restoring confidence in the court after a steady stream of reports of justice’s ethical failures,” Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and chairman of the committee, said of the bill, which passed on a party-line vote.

Republicans accused Democrats of trying to “destroy” the conservative-dominated court and undermine its credibility in a fit of pique over decisions on abortion rights, the environment, civil rights and federal power that Democrats opposed. They said it had no chance of becoming law.

“This bill is going nowhere,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the senior Republican on the committee, who said the legislation would “fundamentally change the way the court operates.”

He and other Republicans on the panel said the legislation represented a blatant violation of the constitutional separation of powers because it would allow lower court judges to cast judgment on justices who review and sometimes reverse lower court decisions. They said lawyers would try to use the new rules to force justices to recuse themselves and bog down the court.

“I think our founders are rolling over in their graves,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas.

Democrats conceded the legislation could not pass the current Senate, where it would need 60 votes, and has no prospects in the Republican-controlled House. But they said the debate would focus attention on ethics issues on the Supreme Court and could build momentum for future action by Congress.

The ethics rule fight was the latest clash over the court in a committee that has seen increasingly partisan fights over judicial nominations and the confirmations of the justices themselves.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

“We are here because the highest court in the land has the lowest standards of ethics anywhere in the federal government and justices have exhibited much improper behavior, not least in hapless efforts to excuse the misdeeds,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island and the chief author of the bill. “This cannot go on. Defending this behavior defends the indefensible.”

The fight was the latest clash over the court in a committee that has seen increasingly partisan fights over judicial nominations and the confirmations of the justices themselves. Mr. Graham suggested earlier this week that the Democratic decision to pursue the ethics legislation despite the fact that it could not clear Congress was likely to lead to less Republican cooperation on the panel.

The Democratic push followed a series of news reports showing that Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel A. Alito took lavish vacations and private jet trips on the courtesy of billionaires and failed to disclose them. In Justice Thomas’s case, a Republican megadonor, Harlan Crow, also paid for the education of a relative and purchased real estate from the justice.

Senator Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, said his constituents have expressed surprise that justices could receive such benefits, much less fail to disclose them.

“Disclosure is the bare minimum, and that has to apply to anybody who is a judge,” he said.

In defending the trips, the two justices said that they believed that they did not have to report them because of their social relationships with those picking up the tab. And Republicans pointed to a clarification earlier this year to the code of ethics that governs judges on federal courts other than the Supreme Court that they must disclose free stays at commercial properties.

The Supreme Court is not bound by that judicial code of ethics because of its special constitutional status. But in a letter to the committee earlier this year, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that the court “takes guidance” from the ethics code followed by the lower courts.

Republicans said the ethics legislation was the latest installment in a Democratic push to stoke public anger toward the court. They repeatedly noted that Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, appeared at a 2020 abortion rights rally outside the Supreme Court, singled out Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh and said they had “released the whirlwind” and “will pay the price” if they stripped away abortion rights.

This legislation will be a crucial first step in restoring confidence in the court after a steady stream of reports of justice’s ethical failures,” Senator Richard J. Durbin said.Credit…Valerie Plesch for The New York Times

The comments drew a stinging rebuke from Chief Justice Roberts, and Mr. Schumer walked them back the next day, saying he meant there would be political consequences.

“This bill is not about oversight or accountability,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “It is about harassing and intimidating the Supreme Court.”

But Democrats said that they were simply trying to eliminate an ethics cloud hanging over the court and noted that ethics questions had been raised against justices appointed by both Republicans and Democrats.

“The highest court in the land should be setting an example,” said Senator Mazie K. Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii.

Before approving the legislation, Democrats on the committee beat back a series of Republican amendments meant to kill it.

Despite the committee approval, Mr. Schumer has not committed to bringing the ethics legislation to the floor for a showdown, which could hamper or slow other must-pass items. It is unlikely that there would be action anytime soon, since the Senate is trying to advance bipartisan legislation on Pentagon policy and spending, among other issues.

But Mr. Schumer on Thursday reiterated his backing for the bill.

“The American people agree that justices who sit on the highest court in the land should be held to equally high ethical standards,” he said.

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