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Senate Democrats Will Hold Hearing on Supreme Court Ethics Amid Thomas Scandal

The lawmakers told Chief Justice John Roberts that they will consider legislative action if he doesn’t act on Thomas.

Chairman Sen. Richard Durbin presides over a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on March 8, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are planning to hold a hearing on the “ethical standards” of the Supreme Court in the midst of a major scandal surrounding Justice Clarence Thomas.

The group, led by Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), announced the hearing in a letter sent to Chief Justice John Roberts on Monday, saying that the recent report on Thomas shows behavior “plainly inconsistent with the ethical standards the American people expect of any person in a position of public trust.” They added that there is a “need to restore confidence in the Supreme Court’s ethical standards.”

The Democrats urged Roberts to investigate Thomas’s acceptance of opulent gifts from billionaire GOP megadonor Harlan Crow, which ProPublica uncovered last week. If the High Court doesn’t resolve the issue, the lawmakers said, they will consider introducing legislation to implement ethical standards instead.

Lawmakers have long sought to ensure that the Supreme Court is bound to a code of ethics. Currently, Supreme Court justices are the only judges who are not legally bound to ethics guidelines, leaving nine of the most powerful people in the U.S. free to break ethics rules with impunity.

Calls for a binding ethics code have increased in the past year amid revelations surrounding the leak of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision and the alleged leak of another major reproductive rights decision in 2014, regarding Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. Both leaks ultimately benefited far right activists, who have close connections to conservative justices, and who have sought to erode reproductive rights for decades.

The lawmakers pointed out that Roberts in particular has a history of snubbing the suggestion that Supreme Court justices be bound to an ethics code. They brought up a 2011 report prepared by the Court that found that “the Court has had no reason to adopt the Code of Conduct as its definitive source of ethical guidance,” after lawmakers had similarly pushed the Court to adopt a binding ethics code more than a decade ago.

Crow’s relationship with Thomas and other ethical concerns surrounding Thomas were known even back then, the lawmakers wrote.

The New York Times noted in its coverage of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about the Supreme Court’s code of conduct in 2011 that “Questions have been raised over Justice Clarence Thomas’s appearances before Republican-backed groups and his acceptance of favors from a contributor in Texas, Harlan Crow, as well as over his wife, Virginia Thomas, and her job as a conservative advocate.”

The lawmakers raised concern over the evident failure by Roberts, who has been chief justice since 2005, in recognizing the need for a binding ethics code for over a decade.

“It is troubling that your 2011 year-end report, which dismissed the call for the Justices to adopt the Code of Conduct, was written notwithstanding the known concerns about Mr. Crow’s largesse. This problem could have been resolved then,” the Democrats said. “Instead, according to ProPublica’s reporting, Mr. Crow’s dispensation of favors escalated in secret during the years that followed. Now the Court faces a crisis of public confidence in its ethical standards that must be addressed.”

The letter comes amid an explosion of calls for action surrounding Thomas and the Supreme Court. Some lawmakers, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), have called for Thomas to be impeached over the revelations, while lawmakers like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) say that legislation forcing the Supreme Court to be bound to an ethics code is long overdue.

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