Key Senate Democrats are calling for next year’s funding for the Supreme Court to be conditioned on the creation of an ethics code for the justices.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who leads the appropriations subcommittee charged with writing the annual funding bill for the judiciary, has expressed support for the idea, but doing so will ultimately need the backing of GOP lawmakers, and the top Republican on the subcommittee is signaling opposition to the proposal.
Van Hollen is weighing in as 15 other members of the Democratic caucus – including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary subcommittee that oversees the federal bench – are proposing language to be attached to next year’s funding bill that would require the Supreme Court to adopt more transparent processes for recusals and for investigating ethics allegations lodged against the justices.
They did so in a new letter, obtained by CNN, to Van Hollen and Tennessee Sen. Bill Hagerty, who is the top Republican on the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the judiciary.
“It is unacceptable that the Supreme Court has exempted itself from the accountability that applies to all other members of our federal courts, and I believe Congress should act to remedy this problem,” Van Hollen said in a statement shared with CNN Monday. His comments were first reported by The Washington Post.
Democrats’ interest in leveraging the funding Congress appropriates to the high court is the latest volley in the debate over whether a stronger code of conduct is needed at the Supreme Court, which is not beholden to many of the ethics procedures imposed on lower court judges.
Van Hollen noted that including an ethics code requirement in the annual appropriations bill will require bipartisan support given the current make-up of Congress, but said he didn’t “see any reason why ensuring that the Supreme Court establish a code of ethics should be a partisan issue.”
A spokesperson for Hagerty said that an ethics code is a “policy question that is separate from the funding levels for Supreme Court operations and security.”
“Moreover, Senator Hagerty strongly believes in preserving the independence of the Judicial Branch from political interference intended to force the Court to change its rulings or policies,” the spokesperson said in a statement Monday evening. “Threats to hold the personal security of the justices and their families hostage in exchange for favored policies are no different from court-packing proposals or protests outside the homes of Justices.”
Some Republicans in the House have indicated openness in the past to pushing for an ethics code for the justices, but congressional GOP leaders have defended conservative justices in the face of claims that they had run afoul of ethical norms.
The new letter from the Democrats pointed to recent reports that have raised questions about potential conflicts-of-interests issues with the political activities of Justice Clarence Thomas’ spouse, and about an alleged well-financed, secret campaign seeking to influence the high court’s conservatives.
“The Supreme Court has the tools and authority it needs to develop and implement these changes, including adopting a code of conduct, creating fairer and more transparent recusal rules, and setting up procedures – based on longstanding procedures in the lower courts – to receive and investigate complaints of judicial misconduct,” the letter said. “The only obstacle keeping the Court from adopting these reforms is the Court’s own unwillingness to see them through.”
They argued that the annual funding bill should withhold $10 million of the Supreme Court’s funding unless the justices adopted an ethics code. The Supreme Court is asking for nearly $151 million in the coming appropriations process for 2024.
The ethics language the new letter is proposing for the annual appropriations legislation would create more concrete standards for when a justice must disqualify him or herself from a case, as well as a system “for receiving and investigating complaints alleging violations of such public code of ethics or other misconduct by justices of the Court.”
Currently, justices decide for themselves whether they must recuse themselves from a case. It is unclear what procedures, if any, the Supreme Court uses to review ethics allegations brought against the justices.
In the past, Chief Justice John Roberts has written that the justices have taken the steps necessary to maintain transparency and the public’s trust.
“I have complete confidence in the capability of my colleagues to determine when recusal is warranted,” he wrote in a 2011 year-end report. His 2021 report stressed the need for the judicial branch to have “institutional independence,” while implying that the federal bench could be trusted to police itself without the interference of Congress.
With the Democrats’ new letter to the appropriators, the senators countered that “Congress has broad authority to compel the Supreme Court to institute these reforms, which would join other requirements already legislatively mandated.”
“And Congress’s appropriations power is one tool for achieving these changes,” the Democrats’ letter said, while citing DC Circuit cases where judges – including Republican appointees – asserted that Congress could use the power of the purse to pressure the Executive Branch to make certain changes.
The Supreme Court’s press office did not immediately respond to CNN’s inquiry about the funding bill proposal.
This story has been updated with additional information.