As public trust in the Supreme Court rapidly erodes, Democrats in Congress are working to tighten ethics laws around federal courts and increase transparency in order to combat corruption and increase accountability in the U.S. court system.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) introduced a bill on Tuesday that would ban federal judges from trading individual stocks to avoid conflicts of interest and tighten restrictions on gifts they can receive and privately funded events they can attend.
The Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act contains several provisions aimed specifically at the Supreme Court. It would create a binding requirement for judges in the Supreme Court to adhere to the court’s Code of Conduct. The Supreme Court is the only court in the country that isn’t bound by the ethics guidelines, and court watchdogs say that all nine judges are culpable of some kind of oversight.
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“At a time when public trust in the Supreme Court has collapsed to historic lows, it’s critical that we enact legislation to reform this broken system,” Warren said in a statement. “From banning federal judges from owning individual stocks to overhauling the broken judicial recusal process, my bill would help root out corruption and restore public trust in the federal judiciary – something that Chief Justice [John] Roberts has simply failed to do.”
Under the bill, Supreme Court judges would have to issue a written recusal decision when a litigant requests recusal, and the Judicial Conference, which oversees federal courts, would have to issue advisory opinions on recusal. These provisions could work to ensure that judges on the High Court are held to higher account when they don’t recuse themselves from cases in which they may hold personal biases or conflicts of interest.
This provision is especially relevant in current applications toward Judge Clarence Thomas, who has been under increased scrutiny due to his wife’s role in the far right’s attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Warren and Jayapal have previously requested that Thomas be recused from cases relating to the January 6 attempted coup or cases otherwise relating to that election.
Six senators and 13 House representatives have cosponsored the legislation, which lawmakers say is overdue and could be crucial in eliminating ethics concerns and boosting public confidence in the court system.
The bill would also improve disclosure requirements regarding case assignments and bar courts from sealing case records relating to public health or safety.
“The American people have lost faith in the federal judiciary,” said Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), in a statement. CREW is among a host of progressive and watchdog organizations that have endorsed the legislation. “The Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act goes a long way to fixing that, taking immediate steps to end financial conflicts of interest and overhauling the Supreme Court’s broken judicial recusal regime. Democracy simply does not work when a judicial system is viewed with suspicion. It is past time for Congress to act to rebuild trust in our judicial system and make clear that judges are not above the law.”
Warren and Jayapal’s proposal comes at a time in which public trust in the Supreme Court is falling. Last year, the Supreme Court’s public approval rating sank below 50 percent, according to Gallup polling. This trust has been especially eroded in recent months – a new poll released Tuesday by Yahoo News/YouGov finds that 53 percent of Americans have little to no confidence in the Supreme Court. This stands in sharp contrast to a September 2020 poll, taken just after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, in which only 30 percent of voters said they didn’t have much trust in the court.
In the intervening time between the 2020 poll and the most recent poll, Republicans gained a supermajority in the Supreme Court. Since then, they have taken increasingly radical steps, including potentially overturning Roe v. Wade, as a leaked draft opinion from the Court appears to suggest that the conservative judges are poised to do.