Connecticut’s Sen. Christopher Murphy proposed a resolution this week that would compel the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt a code of ethics, knowing full well that the chances of such a resolution making it to the president’s desk are slim to none.
“We need to know that justice is totally blind,” Murphy said Thursday. “The court is becoming more political.”
It’s not a new issue. Back in 2011, the debate began after The New York Times reported that Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas had attended an event planned by the uber-conservative Koch brothers and attended by big-money Republican donors.
A year later, Scalia and Thomas spoke at a fundraiser for the conservative-minded Federalist Society and, in 2012, Scalia also appeared at a fundraiser for Republican organization called Friends of Abe.
Though news media reports have cited actions by justices considered to be more conservative, Murphy said the issue is truly non-partisan.
“All nine have crossed the line, or come close to crossing the line,” Murphy said.
With public criticism waxing, Chief Justice John Roberts addressed the idea of a judicial code of ethics for the U.S. Supreme Court in his annual written address in 2011.
“I have complete confidence in the capability of my colleagues to determine when recusal is warranted,” Roberts wrote. “They are jurists of exceptional integrity and experience whose character and fitness have been examined through a rigorous appointment and confirmation process.”
Self-regulation is not good enough for legislators, who insist that U.S. Supreme Court justices should be subject to a code of ethics in the same way that all other judges must abide by ethics regulations.
“There’s an ethical code of conduct for all judges in the country, except for nine,” Murphy said.
S. 1072, A Bill To Require The Supreme Court Of The United States To Promulgate A Code Of Ethics, would not force the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt the same code of ethics as lower courts, just use that as a guide and to “get the court to adopt a code of conduct of their own,” Murphy said.
But Murphy is aware that with a Republican-controlled House and Senate, the chances of passing a bill like this are not very good — Murphy spoke with CT News Junkie about judicial ethics reform moments after casting a vote for Loretta Lynch’s confirmation as the next U.S. attorney general, a vote that was delayed almost five months.
“I’m not confident we’re going to get a vote on this bill,” he said.
Despite what your middle school civics class might suggest, such a bill would be constitutional. The U.S. Constitution allows for a supreme judicial branch as part of the system of checks and balances everybody learns about in school, but the size, salaries, and rules of order have all been set by Congress.
That said, this latest bill most likely will die before anyone has a chance to cast a vote.
Murphy himself has introduced this bill before, but it was the senior senator from Connecticut, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who first introduced the measure, in his first year in the Senate.
After four years of introducing the same bill, Murphy said the goal is to encourage debate.
“We know they’re feeling pressure,” he said. “My assumption is that there’s a debate that we’re not seeing, inside the court.”
Ultimately, though, U.S. Supreme Court judges are human beings with thoughts and feelings, appointed by politically minded presidents.
“Whether we like it or not, justices come to the bench with a set of political beliefs,” Murphy said. “I don’t want them influenced by outside political forces.”
Jordan Fenster lives with his family in Fairfield County. He can be reached by or @JordanFenster on Twitter.
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