Supreme Court Ethics Code & Recusal Standards Law Introduced

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Democratic members of both chambers of Congress have introduced a bill called the Twenty-First Century Courts Act, which would — among other provisions — require the establishment of an ethics code for Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. The legislation was put forward amid growing concerns about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s work on the court in light of the connection of his wife, Ginni, to pushes to overturn the 2020 election outcome. Text conversations between Ginni and then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows have been revealed in which she pushed the Trump official to pursue challenges to Biden’s presidential election victory.

“The fact that Justice Clarence Thomas ruled on a case concerning the insurrection his wife helped plan shows us why we must hold our courts to basic ethics standards,” Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), one of those behind the new legislation, commented. “This is a matter of legitimacy. The judiciary cannot expect the American people to respect its rulings when judges and justices do not respect our laws. We need the Twenty-First Century Courts Act, which will finally hold judges and justices accountable to rigorous, enforceable ethics standards.”

Among other shifts, the proposed legislation also raises “recusal standards where judges and justices have conflicts of interest, [creates] new mechanisms to seek recusal, and [requires] public disclosure of all recusal decisions,” a Democratic Senator’s press release says. So-called new mechanisms to seek recusal would include the opportunity for interests involved in litigation before the Supreme Court to ask for the recusal of a particular Justice. Recusal refers to the withdrawal of a judge (or some other party) from a court proceeding; the mechanism often covers potential conflicts of interest.

The case in which Thomas weighed in involved a push by ex-President Donald Trump to keep certain records of his from the House committee investigating the Capitol riot. Every Justice but Thomas — even including the three who Trump nominated to the court — decided in favor of the riot committee, although it’s worth noting that the texts between Ginni and Meadows weren’t among the records under dispute. Meadows gave the committee the messages before ceasing cooperation. Still, Clarence’s wife was involved in the events under investigation and could relatively easily be perceived as having a stake in how the case turned out — but Clarence participated in the matter anyway. As for other methods of dealing with all of these concerning details, the House riot committee was recently reported to be apparently planning on seeking an interview with Ginni Thomas. So far, committee investigators have heard from more than 800 people.