Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced a bill Wednesday that would mandate the Supreme Court to issue a code of conduct as pressure mounts on the high court to address ethics questions.
The Supreme Court Code of Conduct Act, which Murkowski, a Republican, introduced with Maine independent Sen. Angus King, seeks to promote accountability and transparency in the court. The measure requires the Supreme Court to create a code of conduct within a year of enactment and designate an official to process complaints.
The legislation also gives the Supreme Court the authority to initiate investigations regarding allegations that justices or staff engaged in conduct “prejudicial to the administration of justice” or in violation of federal law.
Murkowski said that when King approached her about the bill several weeks ago, she told him, “You’re going in exactly the right direction, and I think that needs to happen.”
“I think most people in this country are surprised that the Supreme Court does not have a judicial code of conduct. Not only do all of the lower courts have a code of conduct, the executive branch has a code of conduct, the legislative branch does,” Murkowski said in a brief interview Wednesday.
“I think it’s an important step in ensuring the integrity and the credibility of the court,” she said.
The bill comes after ProPublica reported that Justice Clarence Thomas accepted undisclosed luxury travel from billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow. Also, this week Politico reported that Justice Neil Gorsuch did not disclose that a prominent law firm chief executive that had argued before the Supreme Court bought a property he part-owned.
Murkowski said the bill has been in the works for months but that the revelations around Thomas have “evaluated the issue even more.”
The perceived ethical conflicts have raised concerns from many members of Congress, including Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin of Illinois. Durbin invited Chief Justice John Roberts to testify before the committee to address Supreme Court ethics. Roberts “respectfully declined” Tuesday and attached a statement reaffirming the “foundational ethics principles and practices to which they subscribe in carrying out their responsibilities as Members of the Supreme Court of the United States” signed by all nine justices.
In a prepared statement, King said that trust in the Supreme Court reached a historic low last year, according to a June 2022 Gallup poll.
“A healthy democracy requires trust: trust in systems, trust in institutions, and trust in leaders. Americans deserve to have confidence that every part of their government – especially the highest court in the land – is acting ethically,” King said.
Having Murkowski, a moderate Republican, on board makes the effort more bipartisan than some other Democrat-led policies that target Supreme Court ethics, according to Gabe Roth, the executive director of the judicial watchdog group Fix the Court. However, it is unclear if the measure can garner the necessary support to clear the Senate.
Roth said he supports the bill and thinks it would help restore trust in the Supreme Court.
“I think it’s a smart way to sort of balance competing interests between accountability and judicial independence,” Roth said in an interview.