WASHINGTON—As public confidence in the Supreme Court falls to an all-time low, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and U.S. Representative Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) on Wednesday reintroduced the Supreme Court Ethics Act, requiring the Judicial Conference of the United States to create a code of ethical conduct for the Supreme Court of the United States. The legislation would also require the appointment of an Ethics Investigations Counsel and require justices to publicly disclose recusal decisions. While recent revelations concerning some justices’ ethically questionable behavior – including leaks of draft court decisions and personal conflicts of interest that should have led to recusal – have increased scrutiny, Murphy has introduced legislation to apply a code of conduct to the Supreme Court every Congress since 2011.

U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), John Fetterman (D-Pa.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) co-sponsored the legislation.

Every federal judge is bound by a code of ethics – except for the nine who sit on the highest court in the country. Trust in the Supreme Court is at a historic low because the American people see justices hide their conflicts of interest and openly engage in political behavior. This legislation would help restore some lost faith by requiring the Judicial Conference to create a code of ethics for Supreme Court justices. It’s a simple, non-partisan solution to increase transparency, enforce accountability, and start to rebuild public confidence in the Court,” said Murphy.

“The Supreme Court of the Unites States ought to be the embodiment of objectivity. As reports of ethically questionable behavior by Justices continue to surface, Congress must close the inexcusable ‘Supreme Court loophole’ in federal judicial ethics rules by creating and enforcing a code of ethics for Supreme Court Justices. The Supreme Court Ethics Act is a common sense step that we can take to ensure impartiality in deliberations, help reverse the troubling trajectory of public trust in the Court, and hold its Justices to the highest of ethical standards,” said Durbin, chair of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

“This isn’t a conservative-liberal justice problem – it’s an American Democracy [capital D] problem when the court regularly faces challenging ethical questions, and because of their crucial and prominent role, the justices receive intense public scrutiny for their choices,” said Johnson, ranking member of the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts. “As we read more and more about the dealing of the court, it continues to show us what’s going on behind the curtain, more and more of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will be calling for justices to bind themselves to a code of ethics.”         

The Supreme Court Ethics Act would:

  • Create a statutory requirement for the Judicial Conference of the United States to issue a code of conduct that applies to the Supreme Court;
  • Direct the Supreme Court to appoint an Ethics Investigations Counsel who will establish a process for the public to report information about potentially unethical conduct by the Justices and to issue a public annual report on the disposition of allegations and investigations;
  • Empower the Ethics Investigations Counsel to conduct their own investigations into potential violations of the code of conduct;
  • Require Justices who recuse themselves from a case to publicly disclose the reason;
  • Require Justices who deny a proper motion to recuse to publicly disclose the reason.

A one-pager providing further details about the bill is available here.

Last year, Murphy highlighted the importance of holding Supreme Court justices to the highest ethical standards.