Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have introduced a bipartisan bill to require the Supreme Court to create a new code of conduct for itself after ProPublica revealed that conservative Justice Clarence Thomas failed to disclose luxury trips he accepted from Texas billionaire Harlan Crow.
The bill would require the Supreme Court to implement a code of conduct within one year of its enactment into law and publish the new code on its website so it’s available to the public.
It would further require the court to name an individual to handle any complaints of violations of the code and give the court authority to initiate investigations to determine if justices or staff have engaged in conduct affecting the administration of justice or violating federal laws or codes of conduct.
It would empower the court to draft its own code of conduct to preserve the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches, thereby deflecting any criticism that members of Congress would be interfering in the court’s affairs.
“The Supreme Court Code of Conduct Act is a commonsense step to restore and maintain faith in the high court by requiring the creation of consistent, transparent rules like the ones that apply to every other federal judge across our democracy. The other two branches of government already have codes of conduct, it is only reasonable the full Judiciary should as well,” King said in a statement.
Murkowski said the legislation will address public concerns about the court’s impartiality amid its declining approval ratings.
“The American public’s confidence in the Supreme Court is at an all-time-low. Americans have made clear their concerns with the transparency—or lack thereof—coming from the Supreme Court and its justices,” she said in a statement.
“It is critical the public has full faith that their institutions are functioning, including the judicial branch. The Supreme Court must demonstrate independence and fairness as they rule on the laws of the land—and any cracks in the public’s confidence will have damaging repercussions for the state of our democracy,” she warned.
King and Murkowski discussed the legislation last week after returning to Washington from a two-week recess, during which time ProPublica published two bombshell reports about favors Thomas, the Supreme Court’s longest-serving justice, has accepted from Crow, a major conservative donor, over the past two decades.
King told The Hill that he will try to recruit more Republicans to support the bill and hasn’t yet begun discussing it with GOP colleagues other than Murkowski.
ProPublica published details of luxury trips Thomas accepted from Crow as well as frequent trips in the real estate magnate’s Bombardier Global 5000 jet — travel that justices are required to disclose publicly, which Thomas failed to do.
ProPublica also reported that Thomas failed to disclose the sale of a Savannah, Ga., property — in which he had a third interest — to one of Crow’s companies.
The reports have prompted an outcry from Senate Democrats, who will hold a hearing in the Judiciary Committee on May 2 to review the Supreme Court’s ethical standards.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) last week invited Chief Justice John Roberts to testify at the hearing, which Roberts declined.
In a letter responding to Durbin on Tuesday, Roberts pointed out that members of the Supreme Court in 1991 “voluntarily adopted a resolution” to follow the “broadly worded” principles set out in the Judicial Conference’s code of conduct. The Judicial Conference is the policymaking body for the federal courts.
The new legislative proposal from King, who caucuses with Senate Democrats, and Murkowski, an influential Republican moderate, will put more pressure on Roberts to take action, senators say.
“When a bipartisan pair of senators who ordinarily concern themselves with court matters understand the situation at the court is so bad that they need to involve themselves, it’s a very strong signal to the court that it needs to clean up its act,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Neither King nor Murkowski sits on the Judiciary panel.
King pointed to recent polling that shows the public is losing faith in the nation’s highest court.
“In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton notes that the Judiciary can only be successful if it has ‘the esteem and applause of all the virtuous and disinterested.’ With trust in the Supreme Court reaching historic lows, I worry we’re getting dangerously far from this fundamental vision,” King said Wednesday.
A Gallup poll published in June found that only 25 percent of U.S. adults surveyed said they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Supreme Court, a drop from the 36 percent of respondents who said so in 2021.
Murkowski told The Hill last week that she worried about the court’s credibility in the eyes of the American public, which has grown increasingly distrustful of the nation’s institutions in recent years.
“I think we are moving dangerously close to a place where the public has lost faith and trust in the credibility of our governing institutions. They don’t trust the court, I don’t think what’s going on with Justice Thomas is helping anything,” she said.
Updated at 3:45 p.m.