Senators call for Supreme Court to follow ethics code like other branches of government

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BY CHRIS MEGERIAN, ERIC TUCKER AND BRIAN SLODYSKO

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, responding to Associated Press investigative stories on the Supreme Court, said Tuesday it was time for the justices to bring their conduct in line with the ethical standards of other branches of government.

“If they just establish the basic standards of every other branch of government, it would give us much more confidence in their integrity,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said. He commented in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he was attending the NATO summit as part of the U.S. delegation.

The AP published stories showing that Justice Sonia Sotomayor, aided by her staff, has advanced sales of her books through college visits over the past decade; that universities have used trips by justices as a lure for financial contributions by placing them in event rooms with wealthy donors, and that justices have taken expenses-paid teaching trips to attractive locations that are light on actual classroom instruction.

The series comes after stories over the past six months that have raised ethical concerns about the activities of the justices. Durbin and other lawmakers in Washington have announced a vote next week on legislation that would require the court to adopt an ethics code. While the measure is unlikely to pass, it sends a signal of discontent about the court.

The nation’s highest court operates without an ethics code, instead following what Chief Justice John Roberts has referred to as a set of foundational “ethics principles and practices.”

Asked Tuesday about the AP stories, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, called them “powerful reports” that amount to a “drip-by-drip-by-drip indictment of a Supreme Court that seems answerable to no one for ethical breaches.

“The chief justice really ought to be taking these into account for the sake the court and the country because the Supreme Court will no longer exist as a truly viable institution if it continues the failure to face the need for a code of ethics,” he said.

In contrast, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, another member of the Judiciary Committee, said he believes Congress should leave the ethics issue to the court and that the Democrats’ pursuit of ethics reform “is part of a long-standing assault against the court that the left feels is undermining a lot of things they’ve accomplished over the years by judicial action. To me, that’s the motivating factor.”

“I think it’s a co-equal branch of government we don’t have jurisdiction over. Secondly, I think this is part of a false narrative that the court is out of control and needs Congress to save it,” Cornyn said.

Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert in legal ethics, said the latest reporting reveals the extent to which “ethics problems at the Supreme Court is an equal opportunity scandal.

“It’s not just about Clarence Thomas and (Samuel) Alito,” Clark said, referring to earlier media reporting about the two conservative justices. “It’s an institutional rather than individual problem.”

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