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Fix the Court Endorses New SCOTUS Accountability Bill

Fix the Court today is endorsing the Supreme Court Ethics and Investigations Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Dan Goldman with two dozen cosponsors.

The bill would create the Office of Investigative Counsel inside the Court to undertake comprehensive investigations into ethical improprieties, the results of which would be reported to Congress.

It would also establish an Office of Ethics Counsel to provide advice to justices on ethical issues, including recusal and disclosure requirements, and would conduct regular ethics trainings for the justices.

FTC is supporting the bill for three primary reasons:

1. The bill would make ethics policies at the Supreme Court consistent. The current hodgepodge — where some justices confronting ethical questions query their colleagues or law professors or the Office of Legal Counsel or no one — is far from a best practice. That’s why the bill’s new ethics counsel is critical: consistent advice on issues like recusal, gifts and disclosures.

2. It’s ridiculous there’s no ethics training requirement for SCOTUS, and this bill changes that. Though the Federal Judicial Center has materials on what constitutes a conflict, sexual harassment, and other workplace misconduct, neither the justices nor lower-court judges have a job requirement to sit through training programs at any point in their often decades-long federal judicial careers. This bill would change that for the nine jurists at the top.

3. Personnel is policy, and spending is policy. Adding up the salaries required by the bill, what you see is that lawmakers here are asking the Court to dedicate a mere one percent of its $150-million-plus annual budget toward creating more robust internal mechanisms to keep the justices honest. Does anyone think that that’s too much, especially since all indications are that the Court hasn’t hired any new personnel in light of the multiple ethics scandals it’s embroiled in?

Finally, it’s worth responding to a criticism some people may have about the complaints process in the bill being triggered by just eight people — the leaders in the House and Senate, plus the leaders of the Judiciary Committees — as compared to the complaints process for lower court judges, which allows “any person” to file a complaint.

First, anyone can Google “Jim Jordan or Jerry Nadler legislative staff” and get the resulting person the relevant information. Second, these members are paying close attention to the Court, and there’s no reason not to trust a certain percentage of them will act in good faith. Third, there has to be some filtering of the complaints, since once you open up a process, you’re going to have a lot of frivolous ones. It’s inevitable. So whom do we trust more to do the filtering, SCOTUS staff or legislative staff? Definitely the latter.

FTC’s Gabe Roth added: “Ethics policies at the Supreme Court should be robust and consistent, and the current hodgepodge is far from a best practice. That’s why a new position of Ethics Counsel is critical, and I applaud Rep. Goldman’s vision here — helping the justices help themselves. And when the justices err, as all humans, even Supreme Court justices do, having the additional backstop of a complaints process in the bill is another critical step toward building a more accountable Court.”

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