House Dems Introduce Ethics Bill for US Supreme Court After Alito Controversy

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A group of House Democrats is pushing a legislative proposal that would establish an investigative body within the U.S. Supreme Court to probe potential ethical improprieties in the wake of another Court-related controversy.

On Tuesday, New York Democratic Reps. Dan Goldman and Jerry Nadler and other lawmakers introduced the “Supreme Court Ethics and Investigations Act,” which among other things would create an investigative body that reports to Congress and establish an ethics counsel to advise justices on ethics rules, including recusal and disclosure requirements.

Lawmakers say the goal is to provide transparency and accountability after recent incidents raised ethical concerns about some members of the Court. 

The group cites the incident involving Justice Samuel Alito as an example. Alito faced calls to recuse himself from Jan. 6 and 2020 election-related cases after the New York Times reported in May that his household flew an upside-down flag — a symbol associated with the “Stop the Steal” movement — in January of 2021; and flew another right-wing flag last year.

The incidents prompted Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) to send a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts requesting that he take steps to ensure that Alito recuses himself in any cases related to the 2020 presidential election and the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol “including the question of former President Trump’s immunity from prosecution …” The immunity case is pending before the Court after oral argument was held in April.

In his own letter, Alito responded by blaming his wife for the flags. He also said he would not recuse himself, citing the Court’s code of conduct adopted last year:


(1) A Justice is presumed impartial and has an obligation to sit unless disqualified.

(2) A Justice should disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the Justice’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned, that is, where an unbiased and reasonable person who is aware of all relevant circumstances would doubt that the Justice could fairly discharge his or her duties.” 

A reasonable person who isn’t motivated by “political or ideological considerations” would conclude that the incidents don’t warrant a recusal, Alito says in the letter.

But a number of lawmakers and Court observers seem to disagree. 

“Ethics policies at the Supreme Court should be robust and consistent, said Gabe Roth, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Fix the Court, “and the current hodgepodge … is far from a best practice.” 

Past attempts, however, to bring stronger accountability to the nation’s highest court have been unsuccessful. Last year, ProPublica published an investigation detailing the perks and lavish gifts Justice Clarence Thomas received from Harlan Crow, a real estate tycoon and prominent GOP donor, that Thomas did not disclose. Legislation introduced that year that would require the Court to adopt a code of conduct and create a mechanism to investigate alleged code violations failed to gain traction.

In November, the Court established a code of conduct. But the onus seems to be on the justices to abide by the standards. Alito cited this code — the “Disqualification” section — in his decision not to recuse himself.

Read more about the U.S. Supreme Court’s code of conduct here.