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Poll shows support for independent investigations into ethics of Supreme Court justices

Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Neil Gorsuch, and Justice Clarence Thomas are all facing questions about their financial disclosures.

By Josh Israel - May 01, 2023
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John Roberts
Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts arrives before President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on Supreme Court ethics reform on Tuesday in the wake of revelations that suggest three conservative justices failed to properly disclose income and gifts they had received. A new poll, shared exclusively with the American Independent Foundation, finds strong support for reform.

The survey, conducted April 18 and 19 by Public Policy Polling for the progressive political group End Citizens United // Let America Vote, found that two-thirds of American voters say they do not trust or have confidence in the Supreme Court. 

A memo on the survey said 64% of those polled “believed that the Supreme Court made decisions based on the influence of special interests and their own political ideology rather than on a fair and impartial interpretation of the law.” 

According to the memo, 80% of respondents “said they would support requiring organizations that spend money to influence judicial decisions to disclose their largest donors”; 67% “believe a public code of ethics and a method for investigating violations would restore trust in the Supreme Court”; and 53% “believe that an independent ethics commission should investigate ethics violations, rather than Congress or the Supreme Court itself.” They agreed 74%-15% that “at least some of a justice’s decisions should be reviewed and possibly overturned if that justice committed an ethics violation.”

In recent weeks, news outlets have reported on alleged ethics violations committed by sitting Supreme Court justices.

ProPublica reported on April 6 that Justice Clarence Thomas had received significant gifts, including luxury vacations on a yacht and a private jet, from billionaire Republican activist and real estate developer Harlan Crow and had failed to disclose them. Thomas agreed to amend his financial disclosure forms and said, “Early in my tenure at the court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the court, was not reportable.” 

A subsequent report by HuffPost on April 26 said that Crow’s real estate interests had indeed come before the Supreme Court during Thomas’ time on the court.

“Put simply, Crow compromising Thomas’ independence is an existential threat to the rule of law,” Rakim Brooks, president of the progressive group Alliance for Justice, wrote in an opinion piece published Monday by the website Democracy Docket. He urged Thomas’ resignation and a full investigation, adding, “In the meantime, Congress must hold not just one hearing but several, including one in which Thomas and several others are called to testify.”

Politico broke a story on April 25 that in 2017, nine days after he was confirmed to the Supreme Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch and his fellow co-owners had sold a Colorado property to Brian Duffy, the CEO of Greenberg Traurig, a major law firm that frequently has cases before the court. While Gorsuch disclosed the sale, in which he netted between $250,001 and $500,000, he left blank the box identifying the buyer. Duffy told the outlet, “The fact that he was going to be a Supreme Court justice was absolutely irrelevant to the purchase of that property.”

On April 28, Insider reported that Chief Justice John Roberts may have improperly identified $10.3 million in commissions earned by his wife Jane Roberts from prominent law firms. Roberts reportedly listed the payments for her legal recruitment work, which came from a variety of top law firms, as one salary on his financial disclosure forms. In doing so, he masked both the true sources and nature of her income, some of which came from a firm with business before the high court.

 A whistleblower filed a complaint about the payments with the House and Senate Judiciary committees in December, alleging that the chief justice “has not complied with his legal obligations regarding judicial recusals, and/or proper disclosure of household income.”

Following the allegations regarding Thomas, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin scheduled the hearing for May 2 and invited Roberts or his designee to testify. “The time has come for a new public conversation on ways to restore confidence in the Court’s ethical standards,” the Illinois Democrat wrote in a letter to Roberts. “I invite you to join it, and I look forward to your response.”

Roberts refused, telling Durbin, “Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee by the Chief Justice of the United States is exceedingly rare, as one might expect in light of separation of powers concerns and the importance of preserving judicial independence.” 

“The Senate Judiciary Committee will proceed with our May 2 hearing, which will review common sense proposals to hold Supreme Court justices to, at minimum, the same ethical standards and baseline level of accountability that bind the rest of the federal judiciary and the executive and legislative branches,” Durbin responded in a statement. “It is time for Congress to accept its responsibility to establish an enforceable code of ethics for the Supreme Court, the only agency of our government without it.”

End Citizens United // Let America Vote President Tiffany Muller told the American Independent Foundation in an email on Monday that the poll showed the public agrees:

The scandals plaguing the Supreme Court reaffirm Americans’ worst suspicions about the lack of ethics and integrity in the institution. They know that the Court is captured by shadowy dark money groups and billionaires. These results clearly indicate that Americans want more transparency into the Justices’ outside activities to identify any potential conflicts of interests, and accountability when they run afoul of the law. Congress should heed these warnings and implement a code of ethics to restore faith and trust in one of the most important institutions of our democracy.

At a press conference on Saturday, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) highlighted the ethical allegations to demand reforms:

For decades, conservative politicians and their powerful donors have worked to undermine democracy and used the Supreme Court to do it. Seemingly every month or so a new scandal emerges, from Justice Thomas’s gifts, to the sale of property by Justice Gorsuch to lawyers with cases before the court, to Chief Justice Roberts refusing to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The result has been a cratering of Americans’ faith in the court. It now has the lowest approval rating in its history. There are many reforms we can explore: a code of ethics, term limits or cycling of judges to the lower courts, but only expansion would immediately restore balance to a court controlled by an unaccountable, unethical majority that has put their personal political bias above the law.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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