Opinion: Slow progress on ethics for Supreme Court and Congress

It shouldn’t be this hard.

For years, lawmakers in Congress and Washington watchdog groups have urged the U.S. Supreme Court to approve a code of ethics for the nine most powerful judges in the nation.

The Justices have told Congress they were working on it. But nothing ever happened.

That lack of action has been front and center again after ProPublica revealed that Justice Clarence Thomas had accepted years of luxury trips and vacations around the globe — all paid for by one Texas billionaire.

And none of it had been publicly disclosed.

“It is well past time for the Supreme Court to align with the rest of government in a proper code of ethics,” U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, wrote in a letter from Democrats to Chief Justice John Roberts.

Instead of endorsing more comprehensive ethical standards for the Justices, Republicans slammed the reporting about Thomas.

“The recent attacks against Clarence Thomas are a political hit piece,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Collins, R-Jackson.

But news reports about the ties between Justice Thomas and businessman Harlan Crow are nothing new. Way back in 2011, questions were raised in this newspaper about Crow’s very generous financial support for the Pin Point Heritage Museum in Thomas’s hometown outside of Savannah

Lost in the defensive reaction of Republicans is a simple truth — the U.S. Supreme Court has weaker ethics rules than all other federal judges, Executive Branch officials, and members of Congress.

And that’s hard to square with the court’s pivotal constitutional role.

But while lawmakers demand ethics changes at the Supreme Court, bipartisan efforts to restrict stock trades by members of Congress have struggled to move forward.

It wasn’t that long ago that the stock trades of former Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler — some made after an early 2020 briefing on the Coronavirus — became fodder against them in a pair of Senate runoff elections won by Democrats in Georgia.

“Members of Congress should not be playing the stock market while we make federal policy and have extraordinary access to confidential information,” Sen. Jon Ossoff argued.

One year ago, Ossoff’s plan seemed to have momentum on Capitol Hill. But like the promise of a Supreme Court code of ethics, nothing happened.

In the current political environment, it seems hard to imagine lawmakers passing a bipartisan bill to impose new ethics rules on the U.S. Supreme Court.

But if the Justices refuse to act, sooner or later Congress may have to step in to help preserve confidence in those sitting on the nation’s highest court.

It shouldn’t be this hard.

Jamie Dupree has covered national politics and Congress from Washington, D.C. since the Reagan administration. His column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more, check out his Capitol Hill newsletter at http://jamiedupree.substack.com