Democrats and left-wing groups who spent months attacking the Supreme Court for its lack of an ethics code criticized the court on Monday after it finally adopted one.
The nine justices unanimously signed on to a Code of Conduct after months of pressure from Democrats and activist groups, who targeted conservative justices for alleged ethics violations and their relationships with wealthy individuals. Some of those same groups responded to the Court’s announcement with dissatisfaction, pointing to the code’s lack of an enforcement mechanism and dismissing it as a public relations stunt.
“A corrupt Supreme Court is not going to root out corruption on its own,” Demand Justice, a left-wing activist group that supports court packing and has called for Justice Clarence Thomas’ impeachment, tweeted. “We need a binding code of ethics, with clear enforcement mechanisms, and thorough investigations into the scandals at the Court.”
The organization’s communications director, Colin Diersing, said that a “Scout’s honor code of ethics just doesn’t work when one of the scouts is Clarence Thomas.”
Gifts Thomas received from wealthy friends, such as billionaire real estate developer Harlan Crow, have been the subject of multiple stories by ProPublica that fueled renewed calls for a code of ethics.
Democratic Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, one of the most vocal advocates for Supreme Court reform and the author of the Supreme Court ethics bill advanced by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats, said it was a “long-overdue step,” but pointed to the lack of enforcement mechanism.
“The question is enforcement: where do you file a complaint; who reviews it; how does fact finding occur; who compares what happened to what’s allowed?” he tweeted.
This is a long-overdue step by the justices, but a code of ethics is only binding if there is a mechanism to investigate possible violations and enforce the rules. pic.twitter.com/rmmAHdjCq0
— Sheldon Whitehouse (@SenWhitehouse) November 13, 2023
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin said on the Senate floor Monday that the code was a step in the right direction, but that it still falls short.
“The Court’s new code of conduct does not appear to contain any meaningful enforcement mechanism to hold justices accountable for any violations of the code,” he said. “It also leaves a wide range of decisions up to the discretion of individual justices, including decisions on recusal.”
Durbin consistently backed Whitehouse’s ethics bill, saying that the “highest court in the land should not have the lowest ethical standards.”
Occupy Democrats wrote on Twitter that “Clarence Thomas must resign,” saying the code is a “welcome development,” but not enough. The group has previously called for court packing and a requiring a code of ethics.
Carrie Severino, president of the conservative group JCN, noted shortly after the code was released that it would likely not satisfy Senate Democrats, as their campaign is really about “intimidating a Court that it despises for being faithful to the Constitution.”
The nine justices said in a statement Monday that most of the rules and principles included in the code “are not new.”
“The absence of a Code, however, has led in recent years to the misunderstanding that the Justices of this Court, unlike all other jurists in this country, regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules,” the Court said. “To dispel this misunderstanding, we are issuing this Code, which largely represents a codification of principles that we have long regarded as governing our conduct.”
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