Washington, DC – Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Federal Courts, and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today announced that they sent three letters seeking information from Leonard Leo and two right-wing billionaires implicated in recent reporting on the Supreme Court’s ethics crisis. The senators are seeking to identify the full extent of payments or gifts of travel and lodging given to Supreme Court justices as the Committee considers legislation to fortify ethics rules and standards at the Court.
“To date, Chief Justice Roberts has barely acknowledged, much less investigated or sought to fix, the ethics crises swirling around our highest Court. So if the Court won’t investigate or act, Congress must. Answers to these questions will help the Committee’s work to create reliable ethics guardrails at the Court, under Congress’s clearly established oversight and legislative authority,” said Whitehouse and Durbin in a joint statement.
The letters follow a bombshell report by ProPublica last month that found Justice Samuel Alito accepted and failed to disclose a luxury Alaskan fishing vacation with Republican billionaires Paul Singer and Robin Arkley II. According to the report, Justice Alito’s billionaire-funded vacation was planned and attended by Leonard Leo. Leo is the orchestrator of right-wing influence campaigns around the Supreme Court. A subsequent New York Times report raises to six the number of right-wing billionaires that have provided services and benefits to Justices Clarence Thomas and Alito.
The senators’ letters are the latest in a longstanding oversight effort by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats to ensure transparency and accountability at the Supreme Court and in the federal judiciary. On Monday, Whitehouse and Durbin announced that the Committee will mark up Whitehouse’s Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act on Thursday, July 20. The bill would require Supreme Court justices to adopt a 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.
Congress has an appropriate and well-established role in oversight of the judiciary and updating ethics laws that apply to federal officials, including justices and judges. Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act, which the justices are subject to, and created through statute the Judicial Conference, which administers that law.