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Legislation would require the Supreme Court to adopt a binding code of ethics

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Pollsters at Quinnipiac University say Americans have given the Supreme Court its lowest marks since they started asking the question nearly 20 years ago. Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill that would require the high court to adopt the same ethical code of conduct that applies to lower courts. Before the vote along party lines, the Democratic committee chair, Dick Durbin, laid out the recent report of ethical lapses by both conservative and liberal justices.

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DICK DURBIN: They are the most powerful judges in America, and yet they are not required to follow even the most basic ethical standards.

MARTIN: The committee's top Republican, Lindsey Graham, dismissed it all as an effort to, quote-unquote, "destroy a conservative court."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: This bill is going nowhere. All of us are going to vote no.

MARTIN: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is a Democrat from Rhode Island, and he introduced the ethics bill. So we called him to ask what happens now.

Good morning, Senator.

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Let me just start with what we just heard from one of your Republican colleagues. And this has been a constant theme among Republicans and the conservative media. And the argument is that this is about politics, not ethics. This is a way to undermine or attack people whose decisions you don't like. How do you respond to that?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, that's the performative argument that they make. What was interesting in the markup yesterday was that there was no defense offered by any Republican of any of the conduct of the Supreme Court justices that has recently come to light - the billionaire-funded undisclosed jet travel, the payments for family members' tuition, the gifts to spouses. All of it is just not part of the commentary as far as the Republicans are concerned. So I think, you know, they're very concerned about defending a court that is delivering for them and for their donors in a very big way. And they simply don't want to engage on the question of the actual ethics violations that we've been presented with.

MARTIN: But, you know, interestingly, all nine justices say that they don't need a mandatory code of ethics or independent oversight. What do you make of that?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, it's a little bit, I think, not so clear as that. They have been debating internally what to do, and they simply have not reached a resolution. There is separately a judicial conference of lower court judges that has already started correcting Supreme Court behavior. And I think that the dam is beginning to break, and I think we'll see a little bit more receptivity. Even the chief justice recently said he acknowledged that there is more to do on ethics, and we await him to do more.

MARTIN: Interesting, because, you know, more than a decade ago, the chief justice, John Roberts, rejected a similar effort to legislate ethics rules. Do you think this moment is any different?

WHITEHOUSE: Well, you know, it's an interesting argument for the chief justice to make, because this is focused really on financial disclosure and code of conduct, and both the financial disclosure rules of the courts and the code of conduct rules are passed by Congress. Recusal, for instance, is a congressional statute. And the body that oversees code of conduct issues and financial disclosure issues for the judiciary is a body created by Congress, this judicial conference. So the notion that Congress doesn't have a proper role here is belied by decades of an actual congressional role here.

MARTIN: So how do - how would you - give it - you know, you call the opposition, you know, performative. And, you know, we're not in those meetings privately. So, you know, perhaps there are conversations that are different sort of behind closed doors. But do you see any sign that Republicans could be persuaded on this point?

WHITEHOUSE: Yes. First of all, until this became hotter and more acrid, there were private conversations going on with Republicans on the committee, and they had a very different tone and point of view. And second, the revelations about the Supreme Court are not going to get any better. They're going to get worse. As our investigations go forward and as more information becomes public, the court is just going to look worse and worse. And there will come a time when Republicans are simply going to have no choice but to agree to this because the public outrage will be - it's already bad, and it will be really deafening.

MARTIN: We only have 30 seconds left, but why do you say that?

WHITEHOUSE: Because people are already angry about what's going on at the court. And one of the best bellwethers of that is how angry some of the other federal judges are who have to live under a proper ethics code and are perfect witnesses as to how the court has traveled out of bounds.

MARTIN: That is Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. He's a Democrat from Rhode Island. Senator, thank you.

WHITEHOUSE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.