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Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh appear at a ceremony

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, left, greets Judge Harvie Wilkinson, right, as fellow Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh looks on during a ceremony on September 13, 2019. (Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

New Warren-Jayapal Bill Takes Aim at Supreme Court 'Corruption'

"We can no longer stand by while our judges and justices take advantage of our system to build wealth and power at the expense of our country's most marginalized," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal.

Jake Johnson

With the U.S. Supreme Court at the forefront of the nation's attention as right-wing justices appear ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Pramila Jayapal introduced legislation Tuesday that spotlights the powerful judicial body's complete lack of binding ethics rules—and proposes a number of solutions to tackle the high court's "corruption."

"People deserve impartial judges and justices who aren't beholden to special interests or to their personal agenda."

The Supreme Court is currently the only court in the United States that is not governed by a code of ethics, leaving justices free to accept lavish gifts from partisan actors, attend political fundraisers, and participate in cases in which they have glaring conflicts of interest.

"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 (D-Mass.) said in a statement Tuesday. "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 [John] Roberts has simply failed to do."

If passed, the Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act would impose the existing Code of Conduct for United States Judges on the Supreme Court, require the high court to issue written "recusal decisions" whenever a litigant asks a justice to withdraw from a case, and prohibit all federal judges from owning individual stocks, commercial real estate, trusts, and private corporations.

The bill has six original co-sponsors in the Senate—including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Tina Smith (D-Minn.)—and 13 in the House, including Reps. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)

"We can no longer stand by while our judges and justices take advantage of our system to build wealth and power at the expense of our country's most marginalized," said Jayapal (D-Wash.). "A system without basic ethics is a corrupt system."

"People deserve impartial judges and justices who aren't beholden to special interests or to their personal agenda," Jayapal added. "Nobody is above the law. Not even a Supreme Court justice. My bill with Sen. Warren will reinstate the checks and balances needed to ensure a fair and balanced judicial system that fulfills its promise of equal justice under the law."

The new legislation was introduced a week after Politico published a leaked draft opinion strongly indicating that five of the Supreme Court's right-wing justices are poised to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a move that would likely result in the elimination of abortion rights in 26 U.S. states.

Such a decision would also mark a victory for the sprawling dark-money network that has worked for decades to pack the Supreme Court and the rest of the U.S. judicial system with far-right judges committed to rolling back abortion rights, environmental protections, and more.

"The right-wing goal has been to control the court to achieve policy gains against the will of the American public, and this decision is exactly the kind of deliverable they had in mind when they packed the court with Federalist-Society-chosen justices," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in a statement last week, referring to a prominent right-wing organization that has built what's been described as a "national farm system for conservative judges."

All six right-wing justices currently on the Supreme Court have ties to the Federalist Society.

Warren and Jayapal's bill also comes in the wake of revelations that Ginni Thomas, a longtime right-wing activist and the wife of conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, pressed the Trump White House to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Ginni Thomas' efforts came as her husband worked on election-related cases before the Supreme Court, a fact that called further attention to the dearth of ethics guidelines at the nation's most powerful judicial body. Thomas has thus far declined to recuse himself from cases related to the 2020 election and the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

"As Justice Thomas' recent scandal shows, judges and justices at all levels routinely ride roughshod over basic ethical principles and face no consequences," Christopher Kang, chief counsel at Demand Justice, said in a statement Tuesday. "The courts have failed to police themselves, and Congress must respond with comprehensive reform to tackle the many ethical crises facing the judiciary."

"Sen. Warren and Rep. Jayapal have put together the kind of multifaceted package needed," Kang added, "and House and Senate leadership should advance this bill without delay."

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