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Senate Republicans Block Durbin, Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats' Unanimous Consent Request to Pass Supreme Court Ethics Legislation

Durbin asked unanimous consent to pass the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act; Senate Republicans objected

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today led Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats in asking unanimous consent (UC) for the Senate to pass the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act. U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, objected to Durbin’s UC request, which comes amid a myriad of apparent ethical lapses by Supreme Court justices demonstrating the need for ethics reform.

The SCERT Act advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last July. The legislation would require Supreme Court justices to adopt a binding code of conduct, create a mechanism to investigate alleged violations of the code of conduct and other laws, improve disclosure and transparency when a justice has a connection to a party or amicus before the Court, and require justices to explain their recusal decisions to the public.

Ahead of the UC request, Durbin laid bare the dire need for an enforceable code of conduct for Supreme Court justices in a speech on the Senate floor.

“For more than a year, the Supreme Court has been embroiled in an ethical crisis of its own design. Story after story about ethical misconduct by sitting Supreme Court justices has led the news for months,” said Durbin. “For decades, however, Justice Clarence Thomas has accepted lavish gifts and luxury trips from a gaggle of fawning billionaires. The total dollar value of these gifts is in the millions. One Supreme Court justice—millions of dollars worth of gifts. Justice Alito, as well, went on a luxury fishing trip that should have cost him over $100,000—but it didn’t cost him a dime, because the trip was funded by a billionaire and organized by rightwing kingpin Leonard Leo. Both Justice Thomas and Justice Alito have failed to disclose gifts they have accepted—in clear violation of financial disclosure requirements under federal law. But it isn’t only this shameless conduct that has cast a dark shadow over the Court. Time and again, these justices’ actions have cast doubt on their impartiality in cases before the Court.”

Durbin continued, “Federal law requires the disqualification of a Supreme Court justice in any proceeding in which the justice’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned. And the Supreme Court’s own code of conduct reiterates that justices should disqualify themselves in cases when there is reasonable doubt about their impartiality. But despite serious questions about the impartiality of Justice Alito and Justice Thomas in numerous cases, they have refused to recuse themselves from these cases. The ethics crisis at the Supreme Court—the highest court in the land—is unacceptable. It is unsustainable. And it is unworthy of the highest court in the land.”

Durbin went on to note that the code of conduct the Supreme Court adopted for its justices in November does not reform the Court’s ethics rules in any meaningful way and does not include an enforcement mechanism to address violations of the code.

“As the Court conceded in a statement accompanying the code of conduct’s release, it said the code ‘largely represents a codification of principles that we have long regarded as governing our conduct.’ In other words, this so-called ‘new code’ did not raise the ethical standards to which the justices would be held. It simply tried to paper over the failed practices of the past,” Durbin said. “The Court can address these issues itself. The Court could have issued a stronger code of conduct in the first place. It could revise its own code of conduct today. But Chief Justice Roberts repeatedly refuses to use his authority and power to implement a binding code of conduct for the Supreme Court. Until he does, Congress will continue our legislative efforts.”

Durbin concluded, “This should not be a partisan issue. An enforceable code of conduct would be a good thing for the Court and for our country. It is essential to ensuring the American people have confidence in the ethical conduct of the Supreme Court, and it is essential to restoring the Court’s reputation. The highest court in the land should not—and cannot—have the lowest ethical standards. That is why I support this legislation, and why I urge my colleagues to join me.”

Video of Durbin’s remarks on the Senate floor is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s remarks on the Senate floor is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s remarks on the Senate floor is available here for TV Stations.

Durbin has been calling on the Supreme Court to adopt an enforceable code of conduct for more than a decade. He first sent a letter to the Chief Justice on this issue more than 12 years ago. 

For full background on Durbin’s and the Senate Judiciary Committee’s efforts to deliver Supreme Court ethics reform for the American people and their ongoing investigation into the Supreme Court’s ethical crisis, visit this page that includes a timeline, releases, correspondence, and information on the SCERT Act.