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Rep. Chris Murphy Announces Bill To End Supreme Court Immunity To Judicial Ethics Law

By Ian Millhiser on February 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm

"Rep. Chris Murphy Announces Bill To End Supreme Court Immunity To Judicial Ethics Law"

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Rep. Chris Murphy (D-CT)

The Code of Conduct for United States Judges provides that in almost all circumstances, “a judge should not personally participate in fund-raising activities.” Yet, because the Justices of the Supreme Court have exempted themselves from this Code, conservative Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito have all participated in high-dollar fundraisers for right-wing political causes. In response to this unethical — but technically legal — conduct by these three justices, Rep. Chris Murphy (D-CT) is pushing a bill that would end the Supreme Court’s immunity to federal ethics law:

After learning about outrageous actions by Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, Congressman Chris Murphy (CT-5) is working on legislation to end conflicts of interest at the nation’s highest court.  In the midst of the Citizens United case, Thomas and Scalia were hosted by the infamous Koch brothers, who funded many of the attacks ads this fall, at lavish retreats intended to discuss their radical agenda and plot political strategy on issues like the Citizens United case. . . .

Murphy’s bill will:

  • apply the Judicial Conference’s Code of Conduct, which applies to all other federal judges, to Supreme Court justices.  This would allow the public to access more timely and detailed information when an outside group wants to have a justice participate in a conference, such as the funders of the conference;
  • require the justices to simply publicly disclose their reasoning behind a recusal when they withdraw from a case;
  • require the Court to develop a process for parties to a case before the Court to request a decision from the Court, or a panel of the Court, regarding the potential conflict of interest of a particular Justice.

Murphy’s bill would make Scalia, Thomas and Alito’s fundraising activities unambiguously illegal. Yet, while ending the justices’ ethics immunity would be an important step towards restoring the wall between the Supreme Court and partisan politics, there is some reason to fear that the three conservatives would simply flout the law.

In 2005, the federal judiciary’s ethics committee released an opinion saying that it is unethical for federal judges to serve on the board of the Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment (FREE) — a Koch-funded group which hosts free junkets for federal judges where they can ride horses, bunk with industry attorneys, and learn how to decide environmental cases in ways that benefit FREE’s corporate funders. Nevertheless, three conservative court of appeals judges — Alice Batchelder, Danny Boggs and Edith Clement — have ignored their ethical obligations and refused to drop off of FREE’s board.

To be fair, Scalia, Thomas and Alito are not Batchelder, Boggs and Clement, so it is entirely possible that they will not treat their obligations with such callous disregard once Congress removes any question that their fundraising activities are illegal. In the meantime, however, Justice Alito has simply dismissed his own profligate right-wing fundraising as “not important.”

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