A terse rebuff from the Supreme Court and a series of new allegations of ethical lapses by Supreme Court justices are prompting renewed calls from Democratic lawmakers to establish an ethics council for the high court.
Rep. Daniel Goldman’s (D-N.Y.) prior call for an “independent investigative body and dedicated ethics counsel” for the court was ignored in a response he called “insufficient and unavailing.”
“The Chief Justice has asked me to acknowledge your letter dated June 27, 2023, and to thank you very much for bringing your concerns about these important matters to his attention,” Ethan Torrey, legal counsel for the court, wrote in Roberts’s stead in a July letter obtained by The Hill.
The sentence was the entirety of the reply from the court.
The body envisioned by Goldman would standardize the court’s ethics procedures and provide guidance on the disclosure of gifts and recusals in light of conflicts of interest.
“We face escalating allegations of ethical transgressions by justices on the Court that would never be tolerated under the Judicial Code of Ethics applicable to all other judges. This ethics crisis at the top of the judicial system undermines the legitimacy of the Supreme Court and reflects poorly on the entire judiciary,” he wrote in the Wednesday letter signed by 14 other lawmakers.
All are moves he contends are needed “in order to restore credibility to the Judiciary Branch.”
In addition to addressing Roberts, the letter was also sent to the Judicial Conference, the policymaking body for the federal courts that establishes guidelines for judges and rules for trial procedures.
The Supreme Court has come under fire in recent months for failing to address potential ethical lapses and its limited response to lawmakers on the topic.
Roberts in April declined to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Supreme Court ethics reforms as it likewise sought to discuss mounting examples of justices accepting lavish gifts from billionaire friends.
Instead, Roberts attached to his letter to Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) a “Statement of Ethics Principles and Practices,” first adopted in 1991, to which he said all current members of the court subscribe.
The letter from Goldman breaks down possible transgressions that have come to light via reporting just since his initial June letter.
That includes reporting from ProPublica detailing that Justice Clarence Thomas was gifted at least 38 destination vacations, was transported to getaways via 26 private jet flights and eight helicopter rides and was also given a yacht voyage around the Bahamas. Other gifts included seats to sporting events.
“While some of these instances of personal hospitality such as stays in personal homes may not require disclosure, that is not the case for flights, yacht cruises and expensive sports tickets,” Goldman writes.
Justice Samuel Alito’s acceptance of a flight on the private jet of billionaire Paul Singer, who has had cases before the court, was reported earlier the summer, but Goldman argues Alito’s comments in response to the story are themselves problematic.
In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Alito said that Congress had no authority — “period” — to regulate the Supreme Court.
“This statement undermines the Constitution’s basic principle of checks and balances among the three branches of government, and demonstrates a troubling hostility to essential ethics reforms for the Court,” Goldman wrote Wednesday, adding that Alito should “recuse himself from all future cases involving existing legislation that regulates the Court.”