Four years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan told a House appropriations subcommittee that Chief Justice John Roberts was considering whether the court should adopt its own ethics code.
“The chief justice is studying the question of whether to have a code of judicial conduct that is applicable only to the United States Supreme Court,” Kagan said. “That’s something we have not discussed as a conference yet, and has pros and cons I’m sure, but it’s something that’s being thought very seriously about.”
Justice Samuel Alito told the panel that it would probably be unconstitutional to make the Supreme Court subject to the same code as the rest of the federal judiciary. Which makes it absolutely no surprise that Roberts’ exploration of the idea has gone nowhere in the past four years despite the court’s deepening spiral into illegitimacy. This is why the issue has not gone away, and why one Democratic senator is considering forcing the issue.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen is chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee in charge of the court’s budget. That’s why what he’s saying is relevant here. He’s planning to use Congress’ purse strings to push the issue with the court.
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“The Supreme Court should have a code of ethics to govern the conduct of its members, and its refusal to adopt such standards has contributed to eroding public confidence in the highest court in the land,” Van Hollen told The Early at The Washington Post.
“It is unacceptable that the Supreme Court has exempted itself from the accountability that applies to all other members of our federal courts, and I believe Congress should act to remedy this problem.”
He didn’t provide specifics to The Early about legislative language to do this, but it’s always been within Congress’ power to pressure executive branch agencies to adopt or change policies, and it’s something that Congress has regularly done. The usual formation is to say that a portion of the funding can’t be used until the agency has complied with lawmakers’ directive in the bill.
The court has requested nearly $151 million in its 2024 appropriation. That includes more than $3 million in landscaping upgrades in their courtyard, and $6.5 million for “physical security upgrades” of the building. “Ongoing threat assessments show evolving risks that require continuous protection,” the court said. “Additional funding would provide for contract positions, eventually transitioning to full-time employees, that will augment capabilities of the Supreme Court police force and allow it to accomplish its protective mission.”
Another way for the court to mitigate their risk would be to stop acting like a partisan Republican tool, but that probably didn’t occur to them.
The Supreme Court is the only one that does not adhere to an ethics code, operating under the assumption that each justice is so above reproach that they can police their own behavior and determine when they need to recuse from a case because of a conflict of interest or declare all the sources of their income. We’ve seen how that’s worked out since Republicans started their project of taking over the court.
This is just one avenue Congress can take to force the issue, and possibly the most effective one because it’s money. You want your decorative fountains refurbished, SCOTUS? How about first you be ethical?