Sen. Angus King of Maine is teaming up with an Alaska Republican on a bill to require the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt a code of conduct.

The announcement comes amid fallout from a series of investigative reports about Justice Clarence Thomas taking lavish vacations and benefiting from real estate deals paid for by a wealthy conservative donor – without disclosing them to the public. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, co-sponsored two similar similar bills introduced in the House of Representatives this month.

The new Senate bill, sponsored by King, an independent, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would require the court to develop its own code of conduct and to appoint an official to review potential conflicts of interest and public complaints, the senators said in a joint statement.

In a written statement, King said he worries that the court is losing the trust of the American people and is straying from its fundamental vision. Quoting Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, King said the court can only be successful if it has “the esteem and applause of all of the virtuous and disinterested.”

King said ethical questions and the lack of clear standards threaten to erode the public’s trust.

“A healthy democracy requires trust: trust in systems, trust in institutions and trust in leaders. Americans deserve to have confidence that every part of their government – especially the highest court in the land – is acting in an ethical manner,” King said.


“The Supreme Court Code of Conduct Act is a commonsense step to restore and maintain faith in the high court by requiring the creation of consistent, transparent rules like the ones that apply to every other federal judge across our democracy,” he continued. “The other two branches of government already have codes of conduct, it is only reasonable the full Judiciary should as well. I appreciate Senator Murkowski’s partnership on this bipartisan effort to strengthen our institutions and protect the vision of our founders.”

Unlike other federal judges and the executive and legislative branches of government, Supreme Court justices are not explicitly bound by a code of conduct with regard to their official duties and private affairs, the senators said.

“The American public’s confidence in the Supreme Court is at an all-time-low. Americans have made clear their concerns with the transparency – or lack thereof – coming from the Supreme Court and its justices,” Murkowski said in a written statement. “It is critical the public has full faith that their institutions are functioning, including the judicial branch. The Supreme Court must demonstrate independence and fairness as they rule on the laws of the land – and any cracks in the public’s confidence will have damaging repercussions for the state of our democracy.”

The proposed bill would require the court to implement a code of conduct within one year of the bill’s enactment and publish that code on its website.

It would also require the court to appoint someone to investigate potential conflicts and public complaints. That official would be directed to issue an annual report to the public about the complaints, though without identifying information of people filing complaints.

And it also would authorize the court to initiate investigations of any of its members or staff who “may have engaged in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice or that violates other federal laws or codes of conduct.”


Two similar House bills were introduced two weeks ago. The Supreme Court Ethics Act co-sponsored by Pingree would direct the Judicial Conference of the United States to issue code-of-conduct rules for the top court and require the court to appoint an ethics investigations counsel.

A second Pingree-supported bill, the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act, also would establish an ethics code for the court, including setting minimums for disclosing things like gifts, travel and additional income. It also would establish a board of Circuit Court judges to investigate public complaints against justices.

Both bills would require justices to recuse themselves from cases under certain circumstances and require public reports on complaints and investigations.

“Trust in the Supreme Court was already at a historic low, but this level of corruption by Clarence Thomas shows why it is necessary for the court to adopt a code of conduct, just like every other federal judge and member of Congress,” Pingree said in a written statement announcing the bills.

“Frankly, it’s preposterous that judges who sit on the highest court in the country are operating without explicit, enforceable rules,” she continued. “Given the recent disturbing revelations, it’s clear that now more than ever, Congress must act to hold the high court accountable and to restore integrity in the institution.”

Justice Clarence Thomas

The proposal follows a series of reports published by the nonprofit investigative journalism organization ProPublica about how Thomas and his family have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and vacations from conservative donor Harlan Crow without public disclosure.

ProPublica has reported that Crow purchased three properties belonging to Thomas and his family in a transaction worth more than $100,000. The outlet also revealed how Thomas and his wife, Gini, were gifted lavish annual vacations for decades by Crow and traveled on his private megayacht and private jet.

Like other federal judges, Supreme Court justices are required to file annual financial disclosures, including financial gifts. But legal experts are divided over whether Thomas broke those rules, since there are exemptions for hospitality from friends.

Thomas’s actions have raised questions about the court’s current ethics guidelines. Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee invited Chief Justice John Roberts to testify about those standards. He declined the request, instead providing the panel with a statement of ethics reaffirmed by the court’s nine justices.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story