One of us is back from a trip that included a stop in (no kidding) Indonesia. Unfortunately, the journey, while lovely, was not paid for by a friendly billionaire. We’re reminded during this recess of the unique role Congress holds to preserve our democratic system both by holding the other branches to account and setting clear norms for representative governance. It isn’t living up to either particularly well at the moment.
This week Congress remains in recess. Both chambers return April 17.
Perhaps it will be the komodo dragon, a beast noted for poisonous bites, that finally generates congressional action on the Supreme Court’s toxic lack of ethics. After revelations published by ProPublica that Clarence Thomas and his wife have enjoyed decades of luxury travel to far-flung places like Indonesia paid for by a conservative billionaire GOP donor, FSGG appropriations cardinal Sen. Chris Van Hollen said he would use the annual spending bill to “ensure” the Court adopts a similar code of conduct that binds the rest of the federal judiciary.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin also promised action, but framed holding SCOTUS to an ethics code in the passive voice. So far the only congress-centric Republican responses we’ve seen defend the indefensible. Justice Thomas’s defense reminds us of an episode of Seinfeld. For a person whose career is based upon having sound judgment, it is simply not believable or exculpatory.
The appropriations process may be the only viable route forward. Democratic House and Senate members have reintroduced an ethics bill that flamed out last Congress; House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan was hostile towards it last May because of its potential impact on far right justices like Thomas.
Despite proclaiming his love of RV parks, Justice Thomas could enjoy the lifestyle of the rich and famous because Congress lost its gumption for judicial oversight. In his annual report for 2011, Chief Justice John Roberts tacitly warned Congress off from imposing ethical requirements for the high court, saying the Court may question the constitutionality of Congress imposing standards on Justices. (So much for Congress’s legislative power.) This posturing seems to have worked, despite legal scholars concluding that Congress has plenty of leeway to impose ethical standards in ways that respect the separation of powers.
The Court is awash with questionable ethical behavior, free travel, self-dealing, leaks, and weak recusal standards, including a lack of transparency in how justices’ spouses’ work may create conflicts of interest. It also refuses to adopt ethics standards. Congress must step in to check the abuses of power and office of the other two branches. A conservative being the Court’s biggest known grifter should not be a reason for the Legislative branch to dodge ensuring SCOTUS is not unduly swayed by wealthy patrons or personal connections.