The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a Supreme Court ethics bill Thursday on a strictly party-line vote after debate in which Republicans offered nothing but straw man arguments that Democrats were set on attacking conservative justices. Those Republicans ignored the fact that the ethics rules would apply to every justice, and it’s not Democrats’ fault that every big ethics scandal reported recently involves conservative justices.
In fact, Republicans had so little ammunition that odious Utah Republican Mike Lee had to scrape to find a $1 million award received by deceased liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, demanding answers about where the money went. Ginsburg donated the money to charity immediately, and still made the effort to reveal the award on her 2019 financial disclosure report.
Although they don’t have a leg to stand on, Republicans will continue to fight this effort, which is one reason Democrats are pushing Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to put the bill on the floor and force Republicans to filibuster. That’s a good and necessary thing to do for any number of reasons, the least of which is keeping up the fight to save the Supreme Court from itself.
The court is fundamentally broken thanks to a years-long effort by conservative dark money forces to buy it. They found all the help they needed during those years in then-Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican presidents, especially Donald Trump. With McConnell’s extraordinary interference, Trump packed the court and secured a right-wing majority with his three illegitimate picks.
Justice Neil Gorsuch is sitting in a seat pilfered from President Barack Obama thanks to McConnell’s refusal to hold hearings before the 2016 presidential election. Justice Brett Kavanaugh faced numerous credible sexual assault allegations, a shady financial background, and multiple perjury issues, none of which were adequately investigated during his rushed confirmation process. Justice Amy Coney Barrett was crammed through the Senate and onto the court in fall 2020 even as voters were casting their presidential ballots.
This is the majority that’s willy-nilly reversing decades of precedence on fundamental civil rights and balance-of-power arguments after every single one of them sat in front of the Judiciary Committee and promised not to do just that. Every conservative justice apparently had their fingers crossed behind their backs when they made that promise to senators that stare decisis, the principle that precedent should guide their decisions, was sacrosanct on the major stuff.
The court is broken and it’s not going to fix itself, which is another reason for Democrats to keep reform efforts alive. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the court has been working for years to establish its first-ever code of ethics, but is “stalled” because “justices are deeply divided despite increased scrutiny surrounding their ethical behavior.” They have been given ample opportunity to start policing themselves, and clearly can’t. Congress has the power to do it, and should.
The stink of corruption and the court’s refusal to address it on top of the obviously political decisions handed down in the past several years have created a serious public crisis of confidence in the court. The public is fed up, and should be. On top of plunging approval ratings, there’s a real feeling that the court is too political and holds too much power over people’s lives. A recent focus group of battleground state voters found overwhelming support for investigations into corruption by the justices, even from a plurality of Republicans.
That is the final reason Democrats need to keep pushing this: It’s smart politics. It forces Republicans into continuing to defend what the public sees as indefensible. There are already a few tiny cracks among Republicans, who can’t deny that there’s a problem. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has sponsored a watered-down version of an ethics bill and is frustrated with the court for not dealing with the problem. It “does not make them look good,” she told Politico. “They could have responded differently and this matter would have been put to bed a long time ago. So, that’s their failure.”
Even South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican stalwart who said in committee Thursday that the legislation was just “a bill to destroy a conservative court,” has admitted the court needs “to get their house in order” while at the same time arguing that Congress has no part in making them do it.
Democrats need to keep the pressure on. They need to force Republicans into continuing to defend what the public sees as indefensible, and they need to make Republicans own what the public sees as a dangerous and corrupt court.
Sign the petition: Make the Supreme Court follow ethics standards.
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