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Durbin: Supreme Court code of conduct ‘falls short’

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Senate Democrats aren’t fully celebrating the Supreme Court’s new code of conduct just yet, even though they’ve been calling for the court to implement one.

“I will mark this as a step in the right direction,” said Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “It may fall short of the ethical standards which other federal judges are held to and that’s unacceptable.”

The document, backed by all nine justices of the court and released Monday, is eight pages of self-enforcement guidance for what justices “should comply” with. It is closely aligned with rules for lower court judges but does not contain enforcement mechanisms and includes some special provisions addressing the Supreme Court’s “unique institutional setting.”

“The code of conduct does not have a meaningful mechanism to hold justices accountable. It leaves a wide range of discretion for individual justices, including decisions of recusal of sitting cases,” Durbin said.

That is a major flaw in the eyes of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) who has been one of the loudest advocates for a Supreme Court ethics code.

“The real test now is: how do you enforce it? Is there a place where you can file a complaint against a justice? Who sorts out the ridiculous complaints from the legitimate ones? For the legitimate ones? Who does the fact finding about what happened?” Whitehouse asked in a video released after the code was made public.

He said that until there are answers about accountability under the code, “the job is not done.”

That could mean that the Senate Judiciary Committee’s work may not be done on Democrats’ quest for a robust ethics policy at the Supreme Court.

“I’m still reviewing” the code, Durbin said Monday.

The panel has an ongoing investigation into ethics at the Supreme Court and how undisclosed gifts and personal ties between major activists and donors and justices on the court may have granted access to individuals and groups with business before the court. Media reports have revealed connections between GOP donors and judicial activists and lavish gifts, real estate deals and luxury travel for conservative justices on the court.

Durbin credits the court with setting important priorities “including avoiding impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.” But the court’s official statement on the release of the code noted that the rules outlined are not new.

“That’s a problem,” said Durbin.

Subpoena update: Last week, the panel scrapped votes on subpoenas for information from conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo and Texas billionaire Harlan Crow on their relationships with Supreme Court justices after Republicans submitted scores of amendments to subpoena Biden administration officials.

Durbin told reporters Monday night that members of the panel “haven’t decided” on whether they will continue with subpoena votes Thursday.

Anthony Adragna contributed to this report.