In Bipartisan Bill, Senators Urge Supreme Court to Adopt Ethics Code


WASHINGTON — Two senators introduced a bipartisan bill on Wednesday aimed at forcing the Supreme Court to establish an ethics code after recent revelations that some justices had not disclosed gifts, travel and property deals.

Senators Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a centrist Republican, introduced the legislation, which would also require the court to appoint an official to examine potential conflicts and public complaints.

“We’re trying to help the court help themselves,” Mr. King said.

The legislation is the latest effort by lawmakers to pressure the court to increase transparency and better police itself. It is unclear how many Republicans will back the measure. Without their support, it is unlikely to pass in a divided Congress.

Calls for an ethics code have intensified after recent reports underlined how few reporting requirements are in place and how compliance is often left to the justices themselves.

The justices have said they follow the same general ethical standards that apply to other federal judges, but the lack of a binding code for the Supreme Court has been a point of contention.

This month, ProPublica revealed that Justice Clarence Thomas accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars of free gifts and travel from Harlan Crow, a Texas billionaire and Republican donor. Mr. Crow also bought a series of properties from the justice and his family, including the home of Justice Thomas’s mother, in a deal worth more than $100,000.

On Tuesday, Politico reported that Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and two partners had sold a vacation property to the chief of a major law firm, Greenberg Traurig, and that the justice had left blank a field in his disclosure form asking the identity of the buyer. The firm frequently has cases before the court.

Under the measure, known as the Supreme Court Code of Conduct Act, the court would have to impose a code of conduct in a year, publish any rules on its website, designate an official to handle violations and publish an annual report about any complaints and actions taken.

“Americans have made clear their concerns with the transparency — or lack thereof — coming from the Supreme Court and its justices,” Ms. Murkowski said in a statement. “It is critical the public has full faith that their institutions are functioning, including the judicial branch.”

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, on Wednesday defended the “high ethical standards” already in place at the court.

“Unlike the activists and elected Democrats trying to tear them down, the justices have proven their sobriety and their judicial temperament over their long and distinguished careers,” Mr. McConnell said on the Senate floor.

The bill is the latest effort by lawmakers to hold the court more accountable. A measure introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, the Rhode Island Democrat who oversees the Senate Judiciary courts subcommittee, would require the court to adopt a code of conduct that is as rigorous as the rules governing members of Congress. It would also establish clear rules dictating when justices must recuse themselves from cases because of potential conflicts.

Under legislation introduced by Senator Christopher S. Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policymaking body for the federal courts, would have to issue an ethics code that would apply to the court.

Mr. King emphasized that the measure he and Ms. Murkowski were introducing sought to hold the justices to existing standards that apply to other federal judges.

“The problem we have now is that there’s no standards,” he said. “So a justice can say, ‘Well, I didn’t violate anything here.’”

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