U.S. Sen. Angus King’s response to ethical questions facing two conservative Supreme Court justices got an icy reception on Wednesday from a top congressional Republican, underscoring the steep odds against passing it in a divided Congress.
Unlike other federal courts and those in states including Maine, the high court does not adhere to a code of ethics, something that has been highlighted in different rounds of disclosures this month surrounding the personal lives of justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.
Thomas, who has served on the court since 1991, has accepted luxury trips from a Republican mega-donor who also bought property from the justice, according to ProPublica reporting that cited experts who believed Thomas’ lack of disclosures violated federal law. This week, Politico reported Gorsuch sold property to the head of a law firm with business before the court.
The measure from King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, was co-authored by a Republican and would allow the court to write its own code in a way that could blunt its effect and remains less prescriptive than farther-reaching proposals from Democrats that also have a hard road to passage. A top Republican criticized this idea and ones like it on Wednesday.
The Maine senator couched it not as an attack on the court but a way to help it recover from approval ratings that Gallup measured last September as falling to an all-time low, saying a signed commitment this week from the justices to uphold general standards falls short.
“I can’t believe that Chief Justice [John] Roberts wants his legacy to be the lowest level of respect for the Supreme Court in American history,” King told reporters at a virtual news conference on Wednesday.
Control of the courts has been among the hottest issues in federal politics since the Trump era, comprising four years in which the balance of power shifted with three appointments, including that of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, won a fifth term in 2020 despite a hotly contested Democratic campaign against her based largely on her vote for him.
Democrats have accused Republicans of weaponizing the court, particularly late in the 2020 campaign when Trump and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, replaced the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with conservative Amy Coney Barrett after McConnell held up one of former President Barack Obama’s nominees in 2016.
Republicans have responded that Democrats have helped drive distrust in the court with bitter criticism of their appointees, something McConnell, now the minority leader alluded to in a floor speech on Wednesday. His opposition is crucial since 60 votes are required to move legislation through the Senate, and Democrats only have 52 members. Republicans lead the House.
“Unlike the activists and elected Democrats trying to tear them down, the justices have proven their sobriety and their judicial temperament over their long and distinguished careers,” McConnell said.
The King-Murkowski bill would force the court to write a new ethics code within a year and appoint someone to handle complaints. It requires that person to report on those anonymous complaints each year and how they were handled.
Collins is an ally of Murkowski, and both sit in the center of the divided chamber. The Maine Republican released a noncommittal statement through a spokesperson who called this “a complex issue” between governmental branches and said the Senate Judiciary Committee should work on it and proposals like it.
The King-led measure is restrained next to proposals from Democrats, two of which include investigations of justices and prescribe circumstances that require recusals that Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District, said are needed to “hold the high court accountable and to restore integrity in the institution.”
King said he and Murkowski have not had a chance to do “missionary work” with colleagues on the proposal yet, but he called the measure simpler than the ones coming from the House and said prescribing penalties may not be necessary to ensure better conduct.
“I suspect that if you had clear standards, you wouldn’t need to get to the penalty stage because very few if any judges would violate the standards,” he said.