Bicameral Legislation Would Overhaul Judicial Ethics System

A bicameral bill has been introduced in Congress that would overhaul the judicial ethics system and restore faith in our federal courts.

The bill, introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Pramila Jayapal would require the Supreme Court to adhere to a binding Code of Conduct, in the wake of scandalous revelations about Justice Clarence Thomas.

Thomas has come under fire for having over many years accepted trips from GOP megadonor and developer Harlan Crow, including on his private jet and superyacht, without disclosing them on financial disclosures as federal law requires.

The Supreme Court Justice’s wife Ginni Thomas has been receiving payments from conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo—the latest in a series of recent scandals involving Thomas that have fueled calls for him to recuse himself from cases or be removed from office and the court to impose a binding code of ethics.

The legislation would also create new mechanisms for judicial accountability, overhaul the broken judicial recusal process, strengthen restrictions on judicial gifts and privately funded travel, ban federal judges from owning conflicted assets, improve disclosure in the federal judiciary, and restrict courts from sealing public health and safety records.

Specifically, the bill would:

  • Require the Supreme Court to adhere to a binding Code of Conduct. The bill imposes the existing Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges on the Supreme Court, the only federal court in the country not currently subject to a binding ethical code.
  • Create new mechanisms for judicial accountability. The bill closes the loophole that allows judges to escape accountability by retiring from the bench, strengthens disciplinary authority for the Judicial Conference, sets up expedited impeachment procedures for federal judges, and allows the public to file complaints against Supreme Court Justices—like all other federal judges—through a new Supreme Court Complaints Review Committee.
  • Overhaul the broken judicial recusal process. The bill requires Supreme Court Justices to issue written recusal decisions whenever a litigant requests recusal and requires the Judicial Conference to issue advisory opinions with their recusal recommendations. And the bill creates a new recusal process for lower court judges, forbidding judges from making their own recusal decisions and requiring courts to issue written recusal decisions.
  • Strengthen restrictions on judicial gifts and privately funded travel. The bill clarifies the definition of a “gift” under federal law, caps the monetary value of gifts that can be given as personal hospitality, sets up a new oversight process for judicial attendance at privately-funded events, and creates a Judicial Education Fund to pay for the reasonable expenses associated with attending approved events.
  • Ban federal judges from owning conflicted assets. To root out financial conflicts of interest, the bill forbids judges from owning individual stocks and securities, commercial real estate, trusts, and private companies, while making exceptions for certain assets such as mutual funds. And the bill establishes accounts for judges to make conflict-free investments that are independently managed by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board.
  • Improve disclosure in the federal judiciary. The bill provides more information to the public regarding judicial speeches and case assignments, while mandating the livestreaming of court proceedings and new judicial workplace surveys.
  • Restrict courts from sealing public health and safety records. The bill limits the ability of courts to seal records that contain important information for the protection of public health or safety, often concealed at the urging of massive corporations.

The bill is endorsed by a wide range of organizations, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Demand Justice, Public Citizen, Common Cause, Transparency International U.S., Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, National Women’s Law Center, People’s Parity Project, and the Campaign Legal Center.

Also among its supporters are People for the American Way, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Revolving Door Project, Indivisible, Stand Up America, Take Back the Court Action Fund, Demand Progress, Government Accountability Project, AFSCME, Center for Popular Democracy, Project on Government Oversight (POGO), League of Conservation Voters, National Council of Jewish Women, American Atheists, Freedom from Religion Foundation, and Alliance for Justice.

“Public trust in our judicial system has plummeted, but Representative Jayapal and I have legislation to help fix it,” said Warren. “By holding the Supreme Court to a binding code of conduct and requiring all federal judges to disclose conflicts of interest, the Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act would strengthen mechanisms for judicial accountability and help root out conflicts of interest in our judicial system.”

“Public trust in the Supreme Court is at record lows, and it’s not difficult to understand why,” said Jayapal. “As the country’s highest Court is plagued by scandal after scandal, it’s clear that we can no longer stand by as judges and justices take advantage of their position to build wealth and power at the expense of our country. We deserve an impartial Court that isn’t beholden to special interests and personal agendas. No one is above the law, not even a Supreme Court justice. It’s time to enforce checks and balances to ensure a fair and balanced system that meets the promise of equal justice under the law.”

The bill has been met with praise for its comprehensive approach to judicial ethics reform.

“The judiciary is built on a foundation of public trust that is rapidly crumbling because of routine ethical scandals at the highest levels,” said Virginia Canter, Chief Ethics Counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

“Congress can help rebuild public trust in our judicial system by ensuring that our judges and Justices are being held to the highest ethical standards,” said Virginia Canter. “By immediately banning judges and Justices from owning or trading individual stocks, fixing the Supreme Court’s broken recusal regime, and clarifying and improving the gift laws, that is exactly what the Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act would do.”

“As an advocate for justice and equality, I am deeply concerned about the state of our judicial system. Too often, judges are beholden to special interests and personal agendas, rather than the law. This erodes public trust in our courts and undermines our democracy,” said Lisa McCormick, a progressive New Jersey Democrat who called for strong legislation to outlaw bribery. “That is why I am endorsing the Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act. This legislation would overhaul the judicial ethics system and restore public confidence in our courts.”

“The Supreme Court may be one of the most corrupt institutions in American government, but still the justices have made clear they will not act to restore public confidence in the institution,” said Chris Kang, chief counsel at Demand Justice. “This bill represents the kind of comprehensive approach needed to bring basic standards of ethics and transparency to our country’s highest court. Congress should pass it without delay.”

“Like every other court in America, the Supreme Court should be governed by a code of ethics,” said Lisa Gilbert, Executive Vice President, Public Citizen. “Our highest court should be held to the highest standards. The reforms found in Senator Warren and Representative Jayapal’s new legislation are critical for restoring the faith of the American people in the judiciary branch.”

“The highest court in the land should not have the lowest ethical standards in the judicial branch, and we must give Americans confidence that all judges are held to the highest ethical standards,” said Aaron Scherb, senior director of legislative affairs at Common Cause. “We appreciate Senator Warren and Congresswoman Jayapal’s leadership for introducing common-sense reforms in the Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act, and we call on Congress to quickly pass judicial ethics legislation.”

“Fair and impartial courts are the crown jewel of American democracy,” said Scott Greytak, Director of Advocacy for Transparency International U.S. “It was only a few years ago that the Supreme Court upheld an important anticorruption law by concluding that ‘preserving public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary’ was a compelling interest. The safeguards in this bill will further protect our courts by helping to strengthen the public’s trust that their decisions are based on the law and the facts, not on politics or personal interest.”

“Our courts must work for all of us, not just the wealthy and powerful,” said Lena Zwarensteyn, Senior Director of the Fair Courts Program, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.“As far too many recent reports have revealed, it is especially important that we know and have faith that Supreme Court justices’ decisions are informed by the facts and law, not influenced by money and power. We applaud the introduction of the Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act as a crucial step forward in holding our nation’s highest court and the entire federal judiciary to robust standards of ethics and providing much-needed transparency.”

“Public trust in our judicial system has hit rock bottom, and we’re at a perilous moment of judicial reckoning,” said Erinn D. Martin, Director of Nominations & Cross-Cutting Policies, National Women’s Law Center.“Egregious failures of ethics, transparency, and accountability at the U.S. Supreme Court threaten its credibility—and yet, when confronted with these repeated scandals that reveal systemic deficiencies, the Court has failed to adequately take corrective measures on its own. We applaud Senator Warren’s and Representative Jayapal’s timely bill that confronts these decades-long failures and provides an effective roadmap to hold our judges and Justices to the highest possible ethical standards. We urge Congress to move swiftly to pass this bill—restoring integrity in our judicial system depends on it.”

“The veil of corruption and hypocrisy continues to be lifted off of the Supreme Court. As we continue to learn more about blatant ethical violations by the justices, it becomes clearer just how unaccountable this Court is to the public,” said Tristin Brown, Policy & Program Director, People’s Parity Project.

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