Supreme Court news: Cruz accuses Democrats of racist attacks on Thomas as Senate mulls ethics rules

Supreme Court Ethics (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Supreme Court Ethics (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Following an avalanche of recent reporting about unreported vacations and real estate transactions among members of the US Supreme Court, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to ask whether justices on the nation’s highest court should follow a code of ethics.

A recent investigaton from ProPublica revealed that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas failed to disclose gifts, financial benefits, and luxury travel from a Republican megadonor and friend Harlan Crow.

Chief Justice John Roberts was invited to testify to the committe, but he declined.

“The highest court in the land should not have the lowest standards,” committee chair Dick Durbin said.

Republicanscharacterised the hearing and attempts to impose ethics codes at the court as part of smear campaign among Democratic lawmakers and the media to undermine the court’s authority.

“The left despises Clarence Thomas because he is a conservative African American,” Senator Ted Cruz said.

The Supreme Court and the radical reshaping of the federal judicary by Republican lawmakers and right-wing legal groups have faced intense scrutiny following last year’s upending of Roe v Wade and relationships with special interest groups with business at the court.

Justice Thomas and his wife Virginia “Ginni” Thomas also have come under fire following revelations that Ms Thomas pushed to overturn 2020 presidential election results in messages to lawmakers and Donald Trump’s administration.

18:30 , Alex Woodward

We’re closing the blog’s live coverage of today’s hearing.

Stay tuned with The Independent for more on what’s at stake at the court, reactions from lawmakers and how the court has faced increased scrutiny after recent scandals.

The hearing ends with a chief justice snub, partisan attacks and an unclear future for the Supreme Court’s ethics issues

18:26 , Alex Woodward

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on ethics issues at the Supreme Court has come to an end, after three hours of debate among lawmakers, legal experts and former judges.

Chief Justice John Roberts declined to appear at the hearing. Republican lawmakers pivoted to condemning protests against recent high-profile Supreme Court decisions and what they characterised is a conspiracy among Democratic lawmakers, “dark money” campaigns and media outlets to undermine the court’s legitimacy.

Legal experts and Democratic lawmakers argued that the court – the only arm of the federal judiciary that is not bound by a code of ethics – should not be insulated against a system of checks and balances, especially after several investigations revealed politically consequential conflicts of interest and unreported trips and gifts worth tens of thousands of dollars, among other findings.


Leading conservative judge calls for Supreme Court reform in statement to Senate committee

18:17 , Alex Woodward

A prominent conservative former federal judge revered on the right issued a statement calling on Congress to impose new ethics rules for Supreme Court justices, moments before a Senate hearing where Republicans railed against such measures.

The statement from retired appeals court Judge J Michael Luttig said that Congress “indisputably has the power under the Constitution” to “enact laws prescribing the ethical standards applicable to the nonjudicial conduct and activities of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

He said a binding c ourt of conduct “ought not be thought of as anything more – and certainly nothing less – than the housekeeping that is necessary to maintain a Republic.”


Ted Cruz suggests ethics probes into Clarence Thomas are racist

17:32 , Alex Woodward

Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas accused Democratic lawmakers of launching a racist attack against conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas by singling out his history of tens of thousands of dollars in undisclosed gifts and travel from a GOP megadonor.

As an example, he showed a copy of a magazine cover showing the justice shining the shoes of the late Justice Anton Scalia. The magazine went out of business more than 20 years ago. The cover was from 1996.

“The left despises Clarence Thomas. And they do not despise him because he’s a conservative, the left despises Clarence Thomas because he is a conservative African American,” Cruz said.

Former attorney general suggests Supreme Court would toss out any ethics laws, if challenged

17:17 , Alex Woodward

Former US Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who was in office during George W Bush’s administration, defended the Supreme Court justices under scrutiny and rejected attempts to impose ethics constraints against the nine-member panel.

He said that the public is being forced to “hallucinate misconduct” at the court as part of a concerted effort to undermine its authority.

He also said that if any law imposing ethics requirements at the court were ever challenged in a lawsuit, “I believe it would be found to be unconstitutional” – meaning, that, the Supreme Court justices who would be forced to abide by those checks and balances would toss it out anyway.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Law professor shuts down argument that ethics rules violate separation of powers

17:00 , Alex Woodward

Law professor Amanda Frost rejected claims from Republican lawmakers that imposing a code of ethics on the Supreme Court would violate the separation of powers between the court and Congress.

“Checks and balances is equally important, and the role of the Congress is to establish the Supreme Court. It’s not just permitted, it’s required,” she told the committee.

The Supreme Court’s creation is constitutionally mandated, but there is “no detail about how to operate – that is left to the congress,” she said.

Deciding its operation and whether it abides by congressional oversight is “not in the hands of the chief justice and his colleagues,” she added.

“The justices are not free to say that law does not apply to me,” she said. “What is troubling is, there is an implication in the recent statement of ethics policies as well as previous statements by the court, that it doesn’t think these laws bind it.”

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Republican senator Chuck Grassley lambasts ‘relentless political battering’ from Democratic lawmakers

16:45 , Alex Woodward

Senator Chuck Grassley accused Democratic lawmakers and the press of working in concert to do “the bidding of liberal grand plans” to undermine the Supreme Court.

He pointed to “relentless political battering” and “left-wing dark money interest groups” who are “engaged in a crusade to threaten, pack and smear the courts.

“All because the left is opposed to recent court rulings,” he said.

The increasingly right-wing federal judiciary has been reshaped as part of a years-long plan among right-wing lobby groups and legal organisations working with Republican lawmakers to seat justices and judges who closely align with their ideological goals.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case has allowed groups that do not disclose their donors to spend unlimited sums on campaigns, including tens of millions of dollars to influence judicial nominations.

While groups aligned with their causes have spent millions supporting their favoured campaigns to immense success, Republicans have instead zeroed in on so-called “dark money” groups backing Democratic causes, like the group Demand Justice.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Former federal judge: ‘I am here because I think more is needed’

16:25 , Alex Woodward

Jeremy Fogel, a retired federal judge, told the committee on Monday that he appeared to testify “because I think more is needed.”

A code of ethics would not “make controversies about the court or its decisions disappear, but it would be a statement to the American people that their faith in the court’s adherence to core ethical principles matters,” he said.

Competing bills would establish Supreme Court code of conduct

15:56 , Alex Woodward

Senators Angus King and Lisa Murkowski, an independent and a Republican, respectively, introduced a bill last week that would force the nation’s high court to create a binding code of conduct with an ethics officer who will oversee compliance.

A separate proposal from Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse would also require the justices to adopt and follow an ethics code, but it also would impose standards for disclosing travel and gifts in line with similar rules for members of Congress. That measure would also create an investigative board to review complaints against the justices.

Republican accuse Democrats of a ‘concentrated effort’ to undermine court

15:49 , Alex Woodward

Lindsey Graham, the Republican ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, characterised the hearing and other Democratic-led efforts to bolster ethics at the Supreme Cout as a “concentrated effort by the left to delegitimize this court and to cherry pick examples to make a point.”

New Republic headline: The Democrats need to destroy Clarence Thomas’s reputation. That’s sort of what we’re here about,” he said. “Well it’s not going to work. This assault on Justice Thomas is well beyond ethics. It is about trying to delegitimize a conservative court that was appointed through the traditional process.”

Congressional Republicans have accused Democrats over the years of a kind of judicial extremism in advocating for expanding the court or adding more oversight, despite the GOP’s efforts and right-wing legal campaigns over decades to radially reshape the federal judiciary with ideologically linked judges with ties to activist groups.

Clarence Thomas faced renewed calls for impeachment or resignation with latest revelations

15:46 , Alex Woodward

Last month, a bombshell investigation revealed that Justice Clarence Thomas accepted luxury vacations from a Republican megadonor for more than 20 years.

Ethics law experts believe the absence of such trips from those disclosure forms likely violate a law that requires justices to disclose most of the gifts they receive.

It was the latest in a string of revelations over the last two decades about questionable gifts, but it also followed other questions about his conduct at the court, which prompted calls for the justice to step down or face impeachment.

Last year, Justice Thomas was the only justice who opposed an order that would grant the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack access to hundreds of White House documents from Donald Trump’s term – including messages sent by the justice’s wife to Trump’s then-chief of staff Mark Meadows.

Those messages – riddled with election-related conspiracy theories – urged Meadows to pursue efforts to overturn the results of the election, undermining and dismissing millions of Americans’ votes, in order to seat Trump for a second term.

Democrats demand the court adhere to a code of ethics

15:38 , Alex Woodward

Democratic members of Congress have supported legislation that would impose a code of conduct at the Supreme Court – justices there are the only members of the federal judicary who do not have one.

“The court should have a code of conduct with clear and enforceable rules so both justices and the American people know when conduct crosses the line,” Senator Durbin said at Tuesday’s hearing. “The highest court in the land should not have the lowest ethical standards. That reality is driving a crisis in public confidence in the Supreme Court. The status quo must change.”

‘How low can the court go?'

15:35 , Alex Woodward

Senator Durbin criticised the “lavish” gifts accepted by members of the Supreme Court, including the tens of thousands of dollars in trips and travel to Justice Clarence Thomas from a conservative billionaire with interests at the court.

“How low can the court go?” Durbin said.

“I think it’s pretty clear to most objective people this is not the ordinary course of business nor should it be a standard for those of us in public service,” he added. “We wouldn’t tolerate this from a city council member or an alderman. It falls short of ethical standards we expect of any public servant in America. And yet the Supreme Court won’t even acknowledge it’s a problem. The chief justice’s letter doesn’t mention it.”

Dick Durbin addresses the absence of John Roberts

15:30 , Alex Woodward

Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin said in his opening remarks that he is “troubled by the suggestion that testifying to this committee would somehow infringe on the separation of powers or threaten judicial independence.”

“In fact, answering legitimate questions from the people’s representatives is one of the checks and balances that helps preserve the separation of powers,” he addded.

Senate Judiciary Committee chair: Supreme Court should ‘not have the lowest standard of ethics'

15:26 , David Taintor

Ahead of this morning’s hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Durbin told MSNBC that the Supreme Court needs to have a higher standard of ethical behaviour:

“I think we can come up with a bipartisan measure and move forward and say to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land should not have the lowest standard of ethics in the federal government,” he said.

15:27 , Alex Woodward

Good morning.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on ethics issues at the Supreme Court is underway.

Last week, Chief Justice John Roberts declined the committee’s invitation to testify, citing “separation of powers concerns and the importance of preserving Judicial independence.

He instead released a short letter with a joint statement from all nine current justices reaffirming their voluntary adherence to a code of conduct that applies to lower federal court judges.