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Lindsey Graham Blocks Democratic Bill Mandating SCOTUS to Adopt Code of Ethics

Supreme Court justices are currently the only federal judges in the US not bound by an ethics code.

Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on May 21, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham on Wednesday blocked an attempt by Senate Democrats to pass Supreme Court reform legislation by unanimous consent, thwarting efforts to establish a binding ethics code for the nation’s top court as two of its right-wing justices come under fire for taking billionaire-funded luxury vacations and flying flags associated with the January 6 insurrection.

The Democratic legislation — titled the the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act — advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee nearly a year ago without any GOP support. The bill would give the high court 180 days to adopt a binding code of ethics and establish new recusal requirements surrounding justices’ acceptance of gifts.

Supreme Court justices are currently the only federal judges in the U.S. not bound by an ethics code. Last year, under massive pressure following revelations of Justice Clarence Thomasundisclosed luxury trips, the Supreme Court announced an ethics code with no enforcement mechanism, effectively rendering it toothless.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the lead sponsor of the SCERT Act, said Wednesday that he was “not surprised” Republicans blocked the attempt to pass his bill.

“The highest court shouldn’t have the lowest ethics standards,” Whitehouse wrote on social media. “What’s controversial about that?”

The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), spearheaded Democrats’ attempt Wednesday to pass the SCERT Act by unanimous consent, process under which just one objection is enough to block legislation. Given Democrats’ narrow control of the Senate and the continued existence of the legislative filibuster, the bill almost certainly would have failed had it gone to a full vote.

“For more than a year, the Supreme Court has been embroiled in an ethical crisis of its own design,” Durbin said in a floor speech Wednesday. “Story after story about ethical misconduct by sitting Supreme Court justices has led the news for months. For decades, however, Justice Clarence Thomas has accepted lavish gifts and luxury trips from a gaggle of fawning billionaires. The total dollar value of these gifts is in the millions. One Supreme Court justice — millions of dollars worth of gifts.”

“Justice [Samuel] Alito, as well, went on a luxury fishing trip that should have cost him over $100,000 — but it didn’t cost him a dime, because the trip was funded by a billionaire and organized by rightwing kingpin Leonard Leo. Both Justice Thomas and Justice Alito have failed to disclose gifts they have accepted — in clear violation of financial disclosure requirements under federal law. But it isn’t only this shameless conduct that has cast a dark shadow over the court. Time and again, these justices’ actions have cast doubt on their impartiality in cases before the court.”

Graham’s obstruction of the ethics bill came as the Supreme Court is weighing a slew of high-stakes cases, including one on whether former President Donald Trump is immune from criminal prosecution.

Thomas, whose wife supported efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, and Alito, who blamed his wife for flying pro-insurrection flags at two of their homes, have both rejected calls to recuse themselves from the case.

“The Supreme Court clearly can’t and won’t police itself,” Christina Harvey, executive director of Stand Up America, said in a statement Wednesday. “Time and again, the right-wing majority on the court has shown that it is unwilling to abide by basic rules of ethics. Passing the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Actwas an opportunity to guarantee basic ethics standards and restore some trust in the highest court in our country.”

“Eighty percent of voters want Congress to pass a binding code of ethics for the Supreme Court,” Harvey added. “Senate Republicans just showed how out of touch they are with what most Americans want — a Supreme Court free of corruption — when they refused to hold our Supreme Court justices accountable to the same ethical standards that apply to members of Congress and public servants across the country.”

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