Senate Democrats want the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt stricter guidelines for disclosing their income sources and potential conflicts of interest, and at least 14 Democratic senators see withholding funds from the court as a way to get their demands.
In a March 31 letter (pdf) to Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the group of 15 senators suggested adding language to the 2024 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill that would place up to $10 million for the Supreme Court on hold “unless the Chief Justice notifies the Committee on Appropriations of both Houses of Congress that the Supreme Court has put into effect a public code of ethics for justices of the Court.”
The letter, led by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), states the new Supreme Court ethics guidelines must, at a minimum, cover “circumstances requiring disqualifications and recusals, the receipt and disposition of requests related to disqualifications and recusals, and the publication of such dispositions and the reasons therefor” and procedures for receiving and investigating alleged violations of those ethics guidelines.
“In the absence of [the Supreme Court’s willingness to accept new ethics rules], Congress has broad authority to compel the Supreme Court to institute these reforms, which would join other requirements already legislatively mandated,” the letter reads. “And Congress’s appropriations power is one tool for achieving these changes.”
The Democrats’ letter states that federal courts have advised Congress that it can withhold funds during disputes with a “recalcitrant executive branch” that won’t comply with congressional demands.
“Nothing in the Constitution mandates that the judiciary be treated any differently when Congress is faced with judicial recalcitrance,” the letter adds
Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) signed onto the March 31 letter suggesting linking security funding to the adoption of the ethics rules. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also signed onto the letter.
Van Hollen’s office has said he is also open to “using the appropriations process to ensure the Supreme Court adopts a code of ethics.”
Days after the Democrats sent their letter, ProPublica began publishing a series of articles claiming conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas accepted numerous gifts and vacation trips from a wealthy personal friend, without disclosing the gifts. The reports indicated Thomas vacationed with Harlan Crow, a successful real estate developer who has donated to Republican candidates, conservative-leaning organizations, and a centrist political organization called No Labels.
Thomas has denied any wrongdoing.
Crow has never been personally involved in a case before the Supreme Court, though he has served in positions on the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Hoover Institute, which have weighed in on Supreme Court cases through amicus briefs. In February, Hoover Institute senior fellows filed an amicus brief in opposition to President Joe Biden’s plans to forgive more than $400 billion in student loan debt.
Republicans: Funding Block Would Harm Security
The letter suggesting conditioning Supreme Court funding on the adoption of these new ethics rules came just two weeks after the court asked for a $9.1 million funding increase in 2024, including $5.9 million in additional spending for the “expansion of protective activities,” amid heightened security concerns.
Supreme Court justices saw protesters march outside their homes over the court’s decision overturning the landmark abortion case, Roe v. Wade. In June of last year, a California man was arrested near Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, after he notified police that he intended to harm or kill Kavanaugh.
Hours after the Supreme Court issued its decision on abortion, a 20-year-old Texas man, Mikeal Deshawn Archambault, allegedly shared a tweet indicating his intent to kill members of the Supreme Court.
“Ongoing threat assessments show evolving risks that require continuous protection,” the court said in its budget request in March. “Additional funding would provide for contract positions, eventually transitioning to full-time employees, that will augment capabilities of the Supreme Court police force and allow it to accomplish its protective mission.”
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have alleged the Democratic plans to withhold funds from the Supreme Court would cut against the court’s request for added security.
During a Tuesday Senate hearing to discuss the Supreme Court’s ethics situation, Hawley noted the overlap between the amount of new funding the Supreme Court had requested and the amount of funding Senate Democrats have suggested withholding.
“Threatening to cut off the funding for security at the Supreme Court. The left is willing to threaten the lives of the justices,” Cruz said.
Democrats have denied plans to target the Supreme Court’s security.
“In the subcommittee, we’re looking at all of our options to promote an ethics rule to be applied to the Supreme Court. I’ve been very clear that we’re not going to cut or restrict money for court security,” Van Hollen told The Hill on Thursday.
In an emailed statement to NTD News, Van Hollen’s office also said, “We’re not aware of any member suggesting withholding security funding for the Supreme Court.”
NTD News reached out to Whitehouse’s office with questions about the proposal to withhold funds, but his office did not respond by the time this article was published.