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With high court in spotlight, Democrats push judicial ethics overhaul

A draft proposal calls for more disclosure, a Supreme Court code of conduct and a new judicial recusal process

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks outside the Supreme Court on May 3. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

In the wake of explosive revelations related to the Supreme Court, a group of liberal House and Senate Democrats is introducing new legislation to tighten judicial ethics laws, reflecting the rising anger on the left over the recent conduct of the high court’s conservative majority.

A draft proposal from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), shared with The Washington Post, calls for more disclosure, a binding code of conduct for the Supreme Court and a new judicial recusal process. The Supreme Court is the only court in the country that is not required to abide by a judicial code of ethics.

The bill comes in the wake of a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that would strike down a landmark ruling establishing a constitutional right to abortion and revelations that Virginia Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, repeatedly pressed then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to pursue efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election at a time when President Donald Trump was saying he would challenge the election results at the Supreme Court.

The Attack: The Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol was neither a spontaneous act nor an isolated event.

Warren and Jayapal sent a letter to the Supreme Court in March requesting that Thomas recuse himself from future cases involving the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, or efforts to overturn the 2020 election, along with a written explanation for why he failed to recuse himself in previous cases on the subject.

Thomas was the lone justice to dissent in a January decision to reject Trump’s request to block documents from being released to the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.

The proposal from the liberal lawmakers would mandate that Supreme Court justices issue written recusal decisions when a litigant requests recusal.

Democratic lawmakers renewed calls to create a code of ethical conduct for the U.S. Supreme Court amid mounting scrutiny of Justice Thomas and his wife. (Video: The Washington Post)

A spokesperson for Warren said she has not received a response to her letter from Thomas, nor has she gotten one from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who addressed the issue of judicial independence in his year-end report amid a dramatic drop in the court’s public approval. Last week, however, Roberts quickly called for an internal investigation by the court’s in-house police service to see how the draft opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. that would overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked to Politico.

While getting the bill through a divided Congress — the Senate is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats and the threshold for most legislation is 60 votes — may prove to be infeasible, the release of the plan underscores the political potency of judicial issues in the eyes of many Democrats as the midterm elections approach.

The Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act that Warren and Jayapal are pushing was signed by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.). It also seeks to “root out financial conflicts of interest” by forbidding the ownership of individual stocks and securities, commercial real estate, trusts, and private companies, according to a summary of the proposal provided to The Post.

“At a time when public trust in the Supreme Court has collapsed to historic lows, it’s critical that we enact legislation to reform this broken system,” Warren said in a statement. “From banning federal judges from owning individual stocks to overhauling the broken judicial recusal process, my bill would help root out corruption and restore public trust in the federal judiciary — something that Chief Justice Roberts has simply failed to do.”

The draft bill outlines various measures to overhaul disclosures relating to close family members of justices, including the creation of “recusal lists” that would require a Supreme Court justice to disclose any financial interests of “the judge, the spouse of the judge, or any minor child of the judge residing in the household of the judge.”

The bill also provides a mechanism to enforce judicial accountability through the creation of a “Supreme Court Complaints Review Committee” that would allow the public to file complaints against Supreme Court justices.