Warren, Jayapal, Colleagues Introduce Bill to Reform Broken Judicial Ethics System
Bicameral legislation would reform the judicial ethics system including by: overhauling the judicial recusal process, imposing a code of conduct on the Supreme Court, banning federal judges from owning individual stock.
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Washington, D.C. - United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) introduced the bicameral Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act to overhaul our nation’s judicial ethics laws and restore public faith in our court system. In the U.S. Senate, the legislation is cosponsored by Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), and Tina Smith (D-Minn.). In the U.S. House of Representatives, the legislation is cosponsored by Representatives Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, André Carson (D-Ind.), Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.), Andy Levin (D-Mich.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas.).
“I’ve been fighting to reform our judicial ethics system for years. At a time when public trust in the Supreme Court has collapsed to historic lows, it’s critical that we enact legislation to reform this broken system. From banning federal judges from owning individual stocks to overhauling the broken judicial recusal process, my bill would help root out corruption and restore public trust in the federal judiciary - something that Chief Justice Roberts has simply failed to do,” said Senator Warren.
“We can no longer stand by while our judges and justices take advantage of our system to build wealth and power at the expense of our country’s most marginalized. A system without basic ethics is a corrupt system,” said Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. “People deserve impartial judges and justices who aren’t beholden to special interests or to their personal agenda. Nobody is above the law. Not even a Supreme Court Justice. My bill with Senator Warren will reinstate the checks and balances needed to ensure a fair and balanced judicial system that fulfills its promise of equal justice under the law.”
Ethics scandals have plagued our federal courts for decades. Clerks accuse federal judges of sexual misconduct with little to no recourse. Supreme Court Justices accept lavish international trips and fail to file basic financial disclosure reports. Judges and justices alike sit in cases in which they own individual stock in the parties—and in cases that could directly affect their spouses.
The Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act would give Americans confidence that their judges are held to the highest ethical standards and are free from conflicts of interest. Specifically, the bill would:
- Ban federal judges from owning conflicted assets. To root out financial conflicts of interest, the bill forbids judges from owning individual stocks and securities, commercial real estate, trusts, and private companies, while making exceptions for certain assets such as mutual funds. And the bill establishes accounts for judges to make conflict-free investments that are independently managed by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board.
- Strengthen restrictions on judicial gifts and privately funded travel. The bill clarifies the definition of “gift” under federal law, sets up a new oversight process for judicial attendance at privately funded events, and creates a Judicial Education Fund to pay for the reasonable expenses associated with attending approved events.
- Require the Supreme Court to adhere to a binding Code of Conduct. The bill imposes the existing Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges on the Supreme Court, the only court in the country not currently subject to an ethical code.
- Improve disclosure in the federal judiciary. The bill provides more information to the public regarding judicial speeches and case assignments, while mandating the livestreaming of court proceedings and new judicial workplace surveys.
- Overhaul the broken judicial recusal process. The bill requires Supreme Court Justices to issue written recusal decisions whenever a litigant requests recusal and requires the Judicial Conference to issue advisory opinions with their recusal recommendations. And the bill creates a new recusal process for lower court judges, forbidding judges from making their own recusal decisions and requiring courts to issue written recusal decisions.
- Create new mechanisms for judicial accountability. The bill closes the loophole that allows judges to escape accountability by retiring from the bench, strengthens disciplinary authority for the Judicial Conference, sets up expedited impeachment procedures for federal judges, and allows the public to file complaints against Supreme Court Justices—like all other federal judges—through a new Supreme Court Complaints Review Committee.
- Restrict courts from sealing public health and safety records. The bill limits the ability of courts to seal records that contain important information for the protection of public health or safety, often concealed at the urging of massive corporations.
“We’re facing one of the lowest moments in history for our nation’s highest court. At a time when the federal courts are facing a crisis of confidence from the very people they’re created to serve, the bare minimum required to restore the American people’s trust in our judicial system is to weed out corruption and demand that all judges and justices adhere to a code of conduct,” said Senator Edward J. Markey. “For federal courts to be respected as arbiters of fairness and justice, they must first hold themselves to fundamental standards outlined in the Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act like avoiding conflicts of interest, refusing lavish gifts, acting with transparency, upholding accountability for the actions of judges and justices, and abiding by an ethics code.”
“The legitimacy of our federal judiciary depends on the faith and trust that Americans place in our judges,” said Senator Alex Padilla. “But that trust is eroded if judges, including the Justices of the Supreme Court, are not subject to and abiding by ethical standards that ensure transparency and accountability. It’s time for Congress to act and ensure that such standards are in place and followed.”
“More than any other branch of government, the courts rely on public trust to operate effectively,” said Senator Tina Smith. “No one before a federal judge should have to think twice about their impartiality or conflicts of interest. This legislation would ensure judges and justices are held to the highest ethical standard and help restore Americans’ faith in the federal judiciary.”
This legislation is based on provisions of Senator Warren and Representative Jayapal’s Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, a bill reintroduced last Congress to fundamentally change the way Washington does business and restore the American public’s faith in democracy.
The Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act is endorsed by: Project on Government Oversight (POGO), Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Demand Justice, Public Citizen, End Citizens United/Let America Vote Action Fund, Campaign Legal Center, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, National Council of Jewish Women, Freedom from Religion Foundation, League of Conservation Voters, Revolving Door Project, 20/20 Vision DC, People for the American Way, American Atheists, Center for Popular Democracy, MoveOn, Alliance for Justice, Transparency International U.S., SEIU, Demand Progress, Common Cause, Government Accountability Project.
“The American people have lost faith in the federal judiciary,” said CREW President Noah Bookbinder. “The Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act goes a long way to fixing that, taking immediate steps to end financial conflicts of interest and overhauling the Supreme Court’s broken judicial recusal regime. Democracy simply does not work when a judicial system is viewed with suspicion. It is past time for Congress to act to rebuild trust in our judicial system and make clear that judges are not above the law.”
“Ethics reform is neither partisan nor personal: The American people deserve courts, and especially a Supreme Court, that they know follow strong ethics rules. The Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act will help accomplish that, by ensuring judges and justices act ethically, transparently, and accountably. We applaud Senator Warren and Representative Jayapal for their leadership in this effort,” said David Janovsky, Program Manager and Analyst at The Constitution Project of the Project On Government Oversight.
“This is exactly the kind of approach needed to tackle the culture of corruption and impunity that has infected America’s courts,” said Christopher Kang, Chief Counsel at Demand Justice. “As Justice Thomas’ recent scandal shows, judges and justices at all levels routinely ride roughshod over basic ethical principles and face no consequences. The courts have failed to police themselves, and Congress must respond with comprehensive reform to tackle the many ethical crises facing the judiciary. Sen. Warren and Rep. Jayapal have put together the kind of multi-faceted package needed, and House and Senate leadership should advance this bill without delay.”
“Like every other court in America, the Supreme Court should be governed by a code of ethics. Our highest court should be held to the highest standards,” said Lisa Gilbert, Executive Vice President at Public Citizen. “The reforms found in Senator Warren and Representative Jayapal’s new legislation are critical for restoring the faith of the American people in the judiciary branch.”
“Americans’ faith in government is rapidly declining as politicians and judges use their positions of power to line their own pockets – often behind closed doors – while corporate special interests capture the courts with hundreds of millions of dollars in dark money. Senator Warren’s new Judicial Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act would begin to reverse this troubling trend and add much-needed transparency and accountability to the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary system. We applaud her leadership and commitment to fighting corruption and ensuring our courts protect all of us, not just the wealthy and well connected,” said Tiffany Muller, President of End Citizens United / Let America Vote Action Fund.
Senator Warren is a national leader in the fight against corruption and for ethics in the federal judiciary.
- After revelations of Ginni Thomas’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, Senator Warren and Representative Jayapal led 22 colleagues in a bicameral letter demanding an explanation from Justice Clarence Thomas on his failure to recuse from key Supreme Court decisions, seeking future recusals by Justice Thomas, and urging Chief Justice John Roberts to adopt a voluntary code of conduct for the Supreme Court
- In December 2021, Senator Warren published an op-ed in the Boston Globe calling for the Supreme Court to be expanded by four or more seats to protect America’s democracy and restore faith in an independent judiciary committed to the rule of law.
- In October 2021, Senator Warren and Rep. Jayapal sent a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts regarding a Wall Street Journal report that over 131 federal judges violated federal law and ethics guidelines by overseeing cases involving companies in which they or their family members owned individual stock.
- Senator Warren and Representative Jayapal first introduced the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act in 2018. This bicameral legislation was the most ambitious anti-corruption legislation since Watergate.
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