On March 1, 2011, Rep. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. and Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., introduced in the House of Representatives, H.R. 862, a new bill which aims to set recusal rules for US Supreme Court Justices, so as to compel the Highest Court to adhere to the same ethical code as do federal judges. Section 2 of this measure, entitled "Code of Conduct", proposes the following:
- Apply "the Code of Conduct for United States Judges adopted by the Judicial Conference of the United States . . . to the justices of the United States Supreme Court to the same extent as such Code applies to circuit and district judges."
- "The Judicial Conference shall establish procedures . . . under which (1) complaints alleging that a justice of the Supreme Court has violated the Code of Conduct . . . may be filed . . . by the Conference; (2) such complaints are reviewed and investigated by the Conferences; and (3) further action, where appropriate, is taken by the Conference."
H.R. 862’s Section 3, entitled "Recusal of Justices", gets to the meat of the bill by requiring "the justices to publicly disclose the reasoning behind any recusal from hearing a case, as well as the reason for refusing to recuse after a motion is made for them to do so. It would also establish a process for reviewing decisions by justices who have refused to step aside from a case," says Kimberly Atkins of Lawyers USA.
Atkins informs that this bill was introduced in response to "recent reports of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas attending private events hosted by energy magnates and hefty political donors Charles and David Koch. The lawmakers assert that Koch Industries benefited from the Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which relaxed campaign finance limits on corporations."
- Citizens United v. FEC, a highly publicized and politicized USSC decision (which came down in January 2010), held that "political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections."
Possible conflicts of interest surround Justice Thomas in particular when it comes to his wife, Virginia Thomas, and her increasingly "outspoken political activism." Last month, Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times reported that Ms. Thomas, a lobbyist, political consultant, and self-appointed “ambassador to the Tea Party movement", is stirring up controversy with her aggressive involvement in propogating a conservative political agenda on issues regarding health care, campaign finance, and a limited goverment.
The question remains: has Ms. Thomas’ husband really remained neutral in his role as a United States Supreme Court Justice on these "hot topic" issues? Lest we not forget that Justice Thomas failed to report on his Supreme Court financial disclosure forms his wife’s $686,589 in "noninvestment income" that she received from the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation between 2003 and 2007.
Recently, Rep. Weiner and several dozens of house Democrats wrote to Justice Thomas requesting his recusal from any future deliberations on the constitutionality of the new health care law, as Ms. Thomas’ lobbyist efforts create "the appearance of a conflict of interest." The full text of this letter can be read here. Felicia Sonmez of the Washington Post opines that this letter is "the latest indication that the court battle over health-care law’s constitutionality–which is expected to be ultimately decided by the Supreme Court–has already become a political tit-for-tat."
Perhaps H.R. 862 has arrived just in time to ensure that everyone, including the members of our Highest Court, follows the rules of their trade.