Ethics of US Supreme Court justices in the spotlight at Senate hearing

Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas
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A US Senate panel will conduct an extraordinary examination of the ethics of justices of the US Supreme Court on 2 May. It will begin at 10:00 Eastern Time, or 14:00 GMT. The hearing comes with a record 58% of Americans disapproving of the job being done by the court.

The Supreme Court itself is composed of six conservative and three liberal justices. The Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee called the hearing following recent revelations about the business dealings of two conservative justices. It will also examine the lavish gifts received by one of them.

Justices under fire

Democrat senator Dick Durbin is chair of the Senate committee. He called the hearing after news outlet ProPublica reported that justice Clarence Thomas – a staunch conservative – had accepted expensive gifts and luxury travel from a Republican political donor, billionaire real estate tycoon Harlan Crow.

Thomas, the longest-serving member of the court, responded by saying it was his understanding that:

personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the court, was not reportable.

Crow has made more than $10m in donations to Republican political groups, according to ProPublica. This includes half a million dollars to a conservative lobbying group founded by Thomas’s wife, Ginni Thomas.

Additionally, Ginni Thomas’s involvement in politics has drawn its own scrutiny. She supported the efforts of former Republican president Donald Trump to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Read on...

Questions have also been raised about another conservative justice, Neil Gorsuch. According to Politico, Gorsuch sold a large rural Colorado property to the head of major US law firm Greenberg Traurig. The sale took place just after Gorsuch was confirmed to the court in 2017. Greenberg Traurig regularly handles cases before the high court.

Gorsuch had tried without success to sell the property for two years before joining the Supreme Court. Further, he did not disclose the buyer on his personal disclosure reports, according to Politico.

‘Historic lows’

The revelations come after a tumultuous year during which the court handed down rulings in a number of major cases. These included overturning the constitutional right to abortion, rolling back environmental protections, and affirming gun rights.

The abortion case was rocked by the extraordinary leak of a draft of the eventual majority opinion.

Steven Schwinn, a University of Illinois Chicago law professor, said it’s unusual for Congress to hold a hearing on Supreme Court ethics. However, it is also rare to have controversy surrounding “so many justices and so many issues”.

Schwinn told Agence France-Presse:

This confluence is contributing to the historic lows in confidence and popularity of the court and eroding trust in it as a special institution, one that really is supposed to be independent.

According to a September 2022 Gallup poll, 40% of Americans approve of the court’s performance while 58% disapprove. A decade earlier, 49% approved while 40% disapproved.

‘Steady stream of revelations’

Chief justice John Roberts, a moderate conservative, was invited to testify. However, he declined, citing:

separation of powers concerns and the importance of preserving judicial independence.

In his letter inviting Roberts to testify, Durbin, the committee chair, said:

there has been a steady stream of revelations regarding justices falling short of the ethical standards expected.

The chief justice responded with a copy of court ethics guidelines and a statement signed by all nine justices in which they:

reaffirm and restate foundational ethics principles and practices.

Supreme Court justices are the only federal judges not explicitly bound by a code of conduct. Schwinn said the recent controversies illustrate the limits of their “self-policing”:

They appear utterly unconcerned with an ethical standard that is ubiquitous in other portions of the government and that is the appearance of impropriety.

He added that: “The court seems utterly tone deaf to it”.

The five witnesses confirmed for the hearing will include a law professor, the director of ethics at a campaign finance watchdog group, and two former US District Court judges. Of these last two, one served as US attorney general under president George W. Bush.


Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse.

Featured mage via Wikimedia Commons/Steve Petteway, public domain, resized to 770*403.

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