Murkowski says Supreme Court should live by an ethics code of its own making

U.S. Supreme Court (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

A partisan slugfest broke out at the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, when the panel met to consider an ethics code for the Supreme Court.

“Last month we learned about a justice who for years has accepted lavish trips and real estate purchases worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from a billionaire with interests before the court,” chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in his opening statement.

Republicans accused Democrats of ulterior motives.

“Very directly, this is a political campaign designed to smear Justice Clarence Thomas,” argued Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Federal ethics laws require justices to file financial disclosure forms but Democrats say they should have to follow a binding ethics code like other federal judges and lawmakers do.  Several Republicans argued that for Congress to impose a code would diminish the independence of the judicial branch.

Neither of the Alaska senators is on the Judiciary panel. But last week, Sen. Lisa Murkowski sponsored a bipartisan bill offering what she sees as a middle way — having the Supreme Court write its own rules.

“Making sure that the highest court in the land has a judicial code of conduct – as all other courts do, as the legislative branch does, as the executive branch does – I think that this is important for the overall credibility and trust of the court,” she said Monday.

Murkowski said she was reluctant to have the legislative branch tell the Supreme Court what rules it has to live by. Instead, she and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, are backing a bill that would require the justices to draw up their own code and appoint an ethics officer to oversee it.

Murkowski said the bill has been in the works since before news broke that Justice Thomas has accepted expensive vacations from a billionaire real estate developer without disclosing them.

It’s not likely that the King-Murkowski bill can bridge the fierce partisanship of the Senate. A week after its introduction, they remain the only two sponsors.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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