Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are using their investigative powers to uncover details about members of the U.S. Supreme Court and their connections to wealthy right-wing donors.
The committee is slated to take up a vote next week to subpoena the donors to testify about their relationships with Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
Recent ProPublica reports revealed that Thomas neglected to disclose lavish gifts he received from GOP billionaire Harlan Crow, and has close ties with the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. The investigative report found that the brothers had cases heard before the court and that Thomas spoke at an event hosted by the Koch network to attract donors.
In August, ProPublica also published a report that revealed Alito accepted a luxury fishing trip from a GOP billionaire who also had cases heard before the Supreme Court justices.
In a joint statement, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said it is “imperative that we understand the full extent of how people with interests before the Court are able to use undisclosed gifts to gain private access to the justices.”
The Democratic senators continued, “By accepting these lavish, undisclosed gifts, the justices have enabled their wealthy benefactors and other individuals with business before the court to gain access to the justices while preventing public scrutiny of this conduct.”
Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told theGrio Justices Thomas Alito “failed to live up to their commitments…under the Ethics in Government Act.”
“The act requires annually that the justices make disclosures of various items, including gifts they receive and reimbursements they’ve received from third parties,” said Canter. “When they fail to do that, it’s incumbent upon the Senate to address those deficiencies.”
Democratic strategist Ameshia Cross told theGrio that the Senate is playing it safe regarding the Supreme Court and has not forcefully imposed a code of ethics on the court because Congressional members want to avoid “political backlash.”
“In a country that has become more and more divided, we’re seeing a kind of tightrope walk when it comes to holding this body accountable,” said Cross.
The push for a Senate vote to subpoena wealthy donors connected to Supreme Court justices comes months after activists and organizations nationwide have called for the court to adopt a code of ethics.
In recent months, it was disclosed that not only have Thomas and Alito crossed ethical lines, but Chief Justice John Roberts’ wife earned millions of dollars after helping high-ranking lawyers match with top law firms that had cases heard before the Supreme Court justices.
Additionally, shortly after Justice Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the high court, the chief executive of a law firm that had 22 cases heard before the court acquired a property that Gorsuch held a stake in. Gorsuch did not document who purchased the property in his federal disclosure forms.
Cross said the Supreme Court has failed to abide by an ethical standard because “the Supreme Court or any responsible party typically does not support regulating itself.”
She said it is similar to “asking the police to police themselves in police brutality cases and expecting that to turn out OK.”
Currently, the Supreme Court is the only court in the U.S. that has not adopted a code of ethics.
“There’s no question that some of the justices’ conduct has fallen outside the bounds of what would be considered acceptable for any other public official,” said Canter of CREW. “The existing ethical framework is not sufficient to keep them in compliance with the highest standards of ethical conduct.”
Cross said the Supreme Court is exhibiting “an abuse of power and an abuse of trust” by its refusal to undergo ethical reform.
In June, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., re-introduced the Supreme Court Tenure Establishment and Retirement Modernization (TERM) Act to set term limits for justices and to restore balance and fairness to the bench.
In a previous interview with theGrio, Johnson likened the Supreme Court to the “good ol’ boy network that is comfortable being immune from accountability.”
Rep. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y., who has also been vocal about the need for ethical reform, recently told theGrio that the justices refused to adopt a code of ethics because they “don’t want to be policed.”
“[Justices] have a lasting legacy, and that legacy should be one that is supportive and reflective of the American people and American values,” said Cross.
“What we’re seeing now is them perpetuating a very small group of individuals, largely Trumpists and MAGA supporters, try to change the trajectory of civil rights and equity,” she said.
“Targeting specifically minorities, low-income communities, and the LGBT community,” she continued, “I think that that legacy is very detrimental to the future of this country and the future of our democracy.”
Canter said that polls show Americans are losing faith in the court and trust in the court “will continue to decline until the justices turn this issue around.”
“It begins with a code of conduct,” she said. “Either they’re going to do it themselves [or] Congress is going to impose it on them.”
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