WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), a member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, and Federal Rights, delivered remarks on the Senate floor emphasizing the need for the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote to authorize issuing subpoenas to Harlan Crow, Leonard Leo, and Robin Arkley II as part of the Committee’s Supreme Court ethics investigation. The Judiciary Committee has scheduled a vote on the authorization for this Thursday, November 9.
“These are individuals with immense power—shouldn’t they be held to the highest level of ethical accountability?” said Senator Hirono during her remarks. “Not because we disagree with some of the Court’s decisions, but because its legitimacy depends on Americans having faith that those decisions were arrived at fairly and objectively, not influenced by moneyed special interests.”
Congress has a well-established role in oversight of the judiciary and updating ethics laws that apply to federal officials including justices and judges. For instance, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act, which the justices are subject to, and created the Judicial Conference, which administers that law.
“Instead of having the strongest ethical rules—or any binding ethical rules, for that matter—the Supreme Court purports to follow a ‘collection of principles’ that are both nonbinding and weaker than the rules for government workers, for members of Congress, and for many private sector employees,” continued Senator Hirono. “If the Supreme Court will not adopt a code of conduct for itself, then Congress has the constitutional power and responsibility to impose a code of conduct on it.”
Senator Hirono’s full remarks are below and video is available for download here.
M. President, I rise today because I, like the majority of Americans, am increasingly concerned about the legitimacy crisis at the United States Supreme Court. The Court consists of 9 members who have lifetime appointments and can make decisions regarding the quality of the air we breathe; the exercise of free speech on the internet; autonomy and control of our bodies; protection of our homes, cars, and cell phones from government intrusion—these are just a few ways that Supreme Court decisions impact the lives of every single American, every single day.
These are individuals with immense power—shouldn’t they be held to the highest level of ethical accountability? Not because we disagree with some of the Court’s decisions, but because its legitimacy depends on Americans having faith that those decisions are arrived at fairly and objectively, not influenced by moneyed special interests. Yet, instead of having the strongest ethical rules—or any binding ethical rules, for that matter—the Supreme Court purports to follow a “collection of principles” that are both nonbinding and weaker than the rules for government workers, for members of Congress, and for many private sector employees.
As we have seen, the Supreme Court’s honor system for financial disclosures and recusals is woefully inadequate. This is not a partisan issue. Justices appointed by both Democrats and Republican presidents have had ethical lapses. The public is paying attention and now, it appears there are sitting justices approved by both Democrats and Republican presidents that are publicly supporting an official code of conduct for the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court could have adopted such a code decades ago, and can do so today, if it wanted to. However, if the Supreme Court will not adopt a code of conduct for itself, then Congress has the constitutional power and responsibility to impose a code of conduct on it. This brings me to the topic of subpoenas.
For months, my colleagues and I on the Judiciary Committee have worked in good faith to gather information about gifts of luxury travel, and other gifts, made to certain justices to understand whether ethical violations occurred, and how and when. We sought information from the millionaires and billionaires who made those gifts about the kind of access they may have gained as a result. Despite lengthy negotiations, we have hit an impasse in our efforts with two of these individuals and their related corporations. Their refusals to provide the Committee with relevant information leave us no choice but to authorize subpoenas.
We need information from these individuals to understand the extent to which Supreme Court justices have failed to disclose gifts from parties with interests before the Court. Congress has a responsibility to craft and strengthen effective, comprehensive Supreme Court ethics legislation going forward. Some of my Republican colleagues say that issuing subpoenas to people who paid for luxury travel and gifts for Supreme Court justices somehow undermines democracy.
M. President, those claims are preposterous. What undermines our democracy is Justices accepting gifts and appearing to use their office for personal gain. M. President, if the Court had done the right thing decades ago and adopted a comprehensive code of conduct, we likely would not be issuing subpoenas.
We have a responsibility to ensure that the highest court in the land adheres to at least—at least—the same ethical standards that apply to the other two branches of government and to pass appropriate legislation if it has failed to do so. Therefore, the Committee should continue to exercise its constitutional oversight authority and authorize subpoenas.
Thank you, M. President.
As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Hirono has consistently championed more robust ethics and accountability for the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court. Last month, Senator Hirono introduced the Supreme Court Biennial Appointments and Term Limits Act, legislation to establish 18-year term limits and regularized appointments for Supreme Court justices. In July, she voted to advance the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act out of committee. The legislation, which she is an original cosponsor of, would require the Supreme Court to adopt an enforceable code of ethics. Earlier this year, she also introduced the Stop Judge Shopping Act, legislation to combat “judge shopping” in federal courts by giving the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (D.D.C.) exclusive jurisdiction over cases that would have national implications.
In May, she joined all of her Senate Judiciary Committee Democratic colleagues in sending letters to Republican mega-donor Harlan Crow and the holding companies that own his private jet, private yacht, and Topridge Camp. That month, she also questioned a panel of legal experts about the need for a strong Supreme Court code of ethics during a judiciary committee hearing. Senator Hirono also joined all of the Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats, in sending a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts to investigate a ProPublica report that Justice Clarence Thomas accepted and failed to disclose 20 years’ worth of lavish gifts and luxury travel from prominent Republican donor Harlan Crow.