Durbin Calls For Supreme Court Ethics Reform On The Senate Floor

Durbin: “The highest court in America should not have the lowest standards when it comes to ethics.”

WASHINGTON  U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today spoke on the Senate floor on the need for Supreme Court ethics reform, including a clear, enforceable code of conduct for Supreme Court justices, in light of recent revelations by ProPublicaof Justice Clarence Thomas’ previously undisclosed gifts from and transactions with far-right billionaire and Republican mega-donor Harlan Crow.  ProPublica found that Mr. Crow has given Justice Thomas nearly 20 years’ worth of undisclosed luxury gifts and getaways, including a lavish yacht vacation in Indonesia, private plane trips, visits to a deluxe mountainside resort, and more.  And just days ago, ProPublica also found that, in 2014, Mr. Crow’s company bought properties owned by Justice Thomas and his family – including the house where the Justice’s mother still lives.  These transactions were also undisclosed, even though federal law requires that they be reported. 

“The highest court in America should not have the lowest standards when it comes to ethics.  But for too long that has been the case with the United States Supreme Court.  It definitely needs to change,” Durbin said.  “Let’s be clear, serving as a federal judge, and especially as a Supreme Court justice, is one of the highest honors in the nation we can confer on an individual.  But, above all, it is a public service.  Judges and justices are entrusted by the American people to serve the public interest and administer equal justice under the law.  That’s why taxpayers, and not billionaire donors, fund judicial salaries, courthouses, and operations.  Judges have a responsibility to put service to others ahead of their own personal self-interest, but the conduct revealed in ProPublica’s reporting tells a much different story… The Supreme Court needs to clean up its act and fast.”

Last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats sent a letter to Chief Justice Roberts calling on the Chief Justice to investigate a ProPublica’s reporting.  The Senators also announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the need to restore confidence in the Supreme Court’s ethical standards.  The letter noted that Judiciary Committee Democrats previously wrote Chief Justice Roberts in 2012 urging that the Court adopt a resolution binding the Justices to the same Code of Conduct that binds all other federal judges, but Chief Justice Roberts refused.  This 2012 letter was sent amidst earlier public reports of Justice Thomas’s acceptance of favors from Mr. Crow, conduct that escalated after the Court’s refusal to act.  The letter noted that Chief Justice Roberts does not need to wait for Congress to act to ensure that the Justices abide by ethical standards that bind other federal judges, but said that if the Chief Justice fails to address the matter, the Committee will take up legislation to resolve it.  

“In the past, Congress has stepped up to strengthen court ethics.  Just last year we passed the bipartisan Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act, which applies the STOCK Act reporting and disclosure requirements to federal judges and justices,” Durbin said.  “But the Supreme Court doesn’t need to wait on Congress to clean up its act.  The justices could take action today if they wanted to.  And if the Court fails to act, Congress must.  In the coming days, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the need to restore public confidence in the highest court of our land, the Supreme Court.” 

Durbin continued, “Some on the Republican side may claim that this focus on ethics is just a reaction to decisions being handed down by the right-wing activist majority of the Supreme Court.  To them, I say, check the record.  I’ve been at this pursuit for more than ten years,” Durbin said.  “I led a letter joined by Democratic colleagues to the Chief Justice 11 years ago urging him to adopt a code of conduct.  The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing in 2011 with Justices Scalia and Breyer.  During that hearing, I asked them about Supreme Court ethics, which was in the news because of troubling reports even then of gifts being made by Mr. Harlan Crow.  Unfortunately, Chief Justice Roberts rejected our call to act ten years ago.  And it appears that Harlan Crow took that as a sign that he should ante up and increase his largesse.”

Durbin concluded, “Is it any wonder that we face a crisis of public confidence in the Supreme Court?  Our Constitution established a system of checks and balances between the branches of government and it established a system in which no person is above the law.  There are few positions in our federal government more elevated than Supreme Court justices.  But justices are public servants and they must conduct themselves in that manner.  Our job on the Senate Judiciary Committee and in the Senate is to make certain that they do.  Nothing less.”

Video of Durbin’s remarks on the Senate floor is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s remarks on the Senate floor is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s remarks on the Senate floor is available here for TV Stations.