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Lawmakers Use Tool Available to Them to Press for Judicial Accountability

This is How It’s Supposed to Work

Ahead of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s expected vote tomorrow to authorize subpoenas for its Supreme Court ethics investigation, Fix the Court is today applauding House members’ efforts to hold the courts accountable by using a tool available to them under the Constitution: the power of the purse.

The enterprise comprises three amendments — all nonpartisan, though all introduced by Democrats — to the Financial Services and General Government section of the House Appropriations bill, H.R. 4664, that’s being debated on the House floor later today.

Though each of them, listed here, is expected to fail, the effort should be seen as a new front, and a new chapter, in the fight for greater openness and accountability in the judiciary.

In one (no. 228), Reps. Dan Goldman and Hank Johnson propose requiring the Supreme Court to establish an Office of Ethics Counsel staffed by at least three individuals “who possess expertise in judicial ethics” and who aren’t current SCOTUS employees. Should the Court demur, it’d lose $1 million from its non-security FY24 funding.

In a second (no. 133) , Reps. Mike Levin, Hank Johnson and Nikema Williams propose withholding $10 million from the justices’ non-security FY24 funding until they write and adopt a formal code of conduct. (Sen. Chris Van Hollen made an identical proposal in July that he withdrew before a vote.)

Finally (no. 261), Rep. Norma Torres proposes increasing the AO’s FY24 budget by $500,000 to hire staff to expedite the process of posting judges’ annual disclosures and stock trade reports in the year-old (as of yesterday) database. Only about 77% of judges’ 2021 disclosures and 45% of their 2022s have been posted, even as the on-time filing rate for judges is consistently around 99%, indicating serious administrative delays.

That only a few dozen 2023 stock reports have been posted, in contrast with the nearly 600 uploaded last year, points to administrative delays there, too.

In the spring, the judiciary did request $297,000 for database compliance staff (p. 23), but the thrust of the Torres amendment is to ensure that the funding (and more of it, given the need) will actually be spent on compliance (cf., PACER fees collected 2010-2016).

Fix the Court is endorsing all three amendments.

FTC’s Gabe Roth said: “Despite burgeoning ethics scandals at the Supreme Court, there’s still no ethics code or ethics office there, and the Administrative Office is not complying with a law aimed at ensuring judges don’t have the types of financial conflicts that caused a stir two years ago.

“The judiciary has had plenty of opportunity to clean up its act, but the branch has failed, so Congress has the responsibility to step up. Whatever the result of the amendments offered this week, I applaud lawmakers’ efforts to advocate for stronger third branch oversight in a responsible, nonpartisan way.”

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