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Durbin Questions Witnesses During Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Supreme Court Ethics Reform

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today questioned witnesses during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled, “Supreme Court Ethics Reform.”  The hearing, as well as Durbin’s questions, emphasized the clear need for reform and examined common sense proposals to hold Justices to – at minimum – the same ethical standards as every other court and agency in the federal government.

Durbin began his questioning by reminding the Committee that his concerns about the ethical code of Supreme Court Justices predates today’s hearing.  He noted that in February 2012, under the Obama Administration, he submitted a letter urging Chief Justice John Roberts to publicly release the Supreme Court’s ethics rules and affirm that the Justices will follow the same ethics code that applies to all other federal judges.

Durbin went on to ask Amanda Frost, John A. Edwald Jr. Research Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law, about the flaws in arguments made by some that Congress cannot legislate a code of judicial ethics that would apply to the Supreme Court.  

“Page 12 of your testimony, which goes into one of the first acts of Congress, the Judiciary Act, belies this argument that somehow the Supreme Court is at a level where Congress can’t address it.  Would you comment on that?” Durbin asked.

Professor Frost, who has been writing about the subject of judicial ethics since 2005, responded by noting that while the principle of separation of powers provides that the branches of government should have separate roles and spheres of conduct, checks and balances is equally important to upholding a democracy.  Ms. Frost reiterated that the Constitution established no detail about how the Supreme Court is to operate, leaving that role to Congress, under Article I, Section 8 and the Necessary and Proper Clause.  She went on to describe a long history of Congress establishing directives to the Supreme Court, from the number of justices that establish a quorum to when it is required for justices to recuse themselves.  Professor Frost concluded that the “Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices” recently transmitted to the Committee by the Chief Justice is troubling in its implication that the Court doesn’t think these laws bind it, which belies the text and structure of the Constitution and the long history of Congress administering the Courts.

Video of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here for TV Stations.