Democrats on the House subcommittee on courts will convene a hearing on Wednesday relating to ethics standards for Supreme Court justices, focusing on when justices should recuse themselves from matters involving their personal lives.
The hearing will also examine when Congress should impeach justices who fail to consider conflicts of interest in cases that may affect themselves or their family members.
In announcing the hearing, subcommittee chair Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) made clear that the move was prompted by recent news reports showcasing text messages from Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, to former Trump administration officials (including Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows) imploring them to use executive branch resources to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential race.
Ginni Thomas was also present at the “Stop the Steal” rally at the White House on January 6, 2021, the day a mob of Trump loyalists attacked the U.S. Capitol building in order to disrupt the certification of the Electoral College votes. Thomas claims that she left the rally before the violence broke out, and that she didn’t take part in planning any of the day’s activities.
While there’s no evidence that Clarence Thomas played any role in Ginni Thomas’s advocacy to overturn the outcome of the election, the Supreme Court justice was recently the sole dissenter in a case where the other eight justices ruled that records held by Meadows should be turned over to investigators looking into the January 6 Capitol attack — a case that many observers have noted presented a clear conflict of interest.
Members of the subcommittee calling for a closer examination of ethics rules for Supreme Court justices said that the couple’s actions warranted the review.
“The Supreme Court has long operated as though it were above the law. But, Justice Clarence Thomas’ refusal to recuse himself from cases surrounding January 6th, despite his wife’s involvement, raises serious ethical — and legal — alarm bells,” said Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-New York), vice-chair of the subcommittee.
Though it’s unclear whether or not Congress would make any changes to ethics rules, the memo announcing the hearing noted that the meeting could result in justices making changes on their own.
“Threats or inquiries of impeachment as a means of regulating the conduct of Supreme Court justices have had varying effects,” the memo said.
In a tweet discussing the hearing, which is set to take place at 2 pm on Wednesday afternoon, Johnson noted that “unlike every other federal judge,” Supreme Court justices “are not subject to a code of ethics.”
“How can one sit on the nation’s highest court and operate with no code of ethics?” Johnson asked.
According to a document provided by the subcommittee, one of the witnesses set to speak at the hearing is Stephen Gillers, Elihu Root Professor of Law at New York University Law School. Earlier this month, Gillers suggested that Ginni Thomas’s actions should have resulted in Clarence Thomas stepping aside from cases involving the January 6 Capitol attack and other matters relating to overturning the election.
While Thomas’s recusal might not be required in every single election-related case, Gillers said, the justice should not be allowed to rule on cases that could directly affect his wife.
“Mrs. Thomas has a First Amendment right to speak publicly and forcefully on issues that might come before the Supreme Court without thereby forcing recusal of her husband,” Gillers previously said. “But in the current situation, her interests are caught up in cases that could come before the Court.”