WASHINGTON — Rejecting recent claims that Justice Clarence Thomas is guilty of ethical lapses, Republicans and allies who have jumped to his defense have been quick to cite examples of liberal Supreme Court justices who made similar errors of judgment or not. they released information.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, Republican senators pointed to the conduct of liberals including the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now-retired Justice Stephen Breyer and sitting Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson.
“I think the more you peel the onion, the more you realize that ethics issues in the Supreme Court are not the exclusive province of one judge. There are problems all nine judges are having in meeting their ethical responsibilities,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, which has called for ethics reform.
“Every one of them has some ethical blind spots,” he added.
By highlighting how judges across the ideological spectrum have sometimes questioned their own ethics, Republicans are in some ways making the case for why bipartisan ethics reform might be necessary, reform advocates say.
Following Thursday’s revelations, Sen. Thom Tillis, RN.C., told reporters on Capitol Hill that perception is a problem and suggested the Supreme Court should take action itself.
“If we are honest with ourselves, at either end of the political spectrum, there are patterns of behavior here that may not hold. They didn’t break a law, they didn’t break any ethical standards, but it really doesn’t go down well with people who want the integrity of the Supreme Court to really be the gold standard,” he said.
“I think there is work that the Supreme Court should do to address those perception issues,” he added.
Thomas’ Republican defenders have been highlighting what Sen. Lindsey Graham, RS.C., called at Tuesday’s hearing «a concentrated effort by the left to delegitimize the court,» which Republicans say has been aided and abetted. by outlets like ProPublica who have focused heavily on the stories concerning Thomas.
ProPublica in April reported that Thomas repeatedly enjoyed expensive vacations abroad paid for by conservative billionaire Harlan Crow. Thursday the non-profit publication reported that Crow had also paid part of Thomas’ great-nephew’s tuition at a private school. This came after another ProPublica report that Crow bought Thomas’ mother’s house, where she still lives.
Other stories reported elsewhere have referred to a real estate transaction involving conservative judge Neil Gorsuch and role of wife of Chief Justice John Roberts, which is a recruiter for law firms whose clients do business with the court. Both judges are conservative.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Graham pointed to the many trips liberal justices have taken that were paid for by others.
Graham also noted that Kagan, the former dean of Harvard Law School, was not stepping aside from a pending court case against consideration of race in Harvard admissions. (Jackson, who served on the college’s board of supervisors, stepped aside.)
“I’m just saying there’s very selective outrage here,” Graham said.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, zeroed in on Breyer, saying he had repeatedly traveled abroad while serving as a judge for the Pritzker Prize, a prominent architecture prize that was founded by the prominent Chicago-based Democratic family of the which the current Governor of Illinois, JB Pritzker is a member.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., weighed in by noting that the American Civil Liberties Union had once paid for Sotomayor to visit Puerto Rico when she was in her previous role as an appeals court judge. Kennedy also cited omissions in Jackson’s financial statements, which he reviewed last year after leaving out information about the income from consultations that her husband, a doctor, receives for cases of medical negligence.
Meanwhile, the conservative media have started running stories targeting liberal judges. Wire Daily, for example, revived previously reported details about how Sotomayor did not recuse herself from cases involving Penguin Random House, publisher of her autobiography. The story did not point out that Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch has the same publisher and did not step aside from a case that came to court after he was appointed in 2017.
Advocacy group Fix the Court had in 2020 He remarked that Sotomayor and Gorsuch have not stood aside and recommended that they «reconsider their decision to hear cases in which the publisher of their book is a litigator.»
Former conservative appeals court judge Michael Luttig, who supports reform, said the Republican focus on liberal judges suggests an opportunity for bipartisan consensus.
“The hearing was a bipartisan confirmation of the need for at least greater Supreme Court transparency, if not a bipartisan confirmation of the need for ethical standards for the Supreme Court,” he said.
Legislation has been introduced that would require the Supreme Court to adopt a code of ethics similar to that required of lower court judges. Proposals have also been made to strengthen disclosure requirements.
Another former federal judge, Jeremy Fogel, who testified at the hearing, said a code of conduct would address concerns raised by lawmakers from both parties.
«It would not eliminate partisan disagreements over the actions of individual judges, but it would provide a common framework for evaluating those actions,» he added.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs the judiciary committee, said Thursday that he believes «all judges should be held to the same ethical standards as any other federal judge» and renewed calls for legislative action on a code of Conduct.
The code that applies to lower courts requires judges to «avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities.» If judges break the code, they can be investigated and reprimanded through an independent complaint process.
The judges say they follow the spirit of that code, introduced in 1973, but have never formally adopted one of their own. Nor is there a procedure for complaints to be investigated except for the drastic step of impeachment.
Roberts refused to attend Tuesday’s hearing, suggesting in a letter that he would threaten the independence of the judiciary.
He attached a statement signed by the nine justices outlining his commitment to ethical principles, which was widely criticized by ethics experts who said it did little to address recent concerns.