Today, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Congressmen Hank Johnson (D-GA), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Mike Quigley (D-IL), David Cicilline (D-RI), and Mondaire Jones (D-NY) introduced the Twenty-First Century Courts Act, a robust legislative plan to promote accountability and increase transparency in the federal courts. This legislation aims to restore Americans' trust in their justice system by directly addressing the public's concerns about judicial conduct--including by requiring the Supreme Court to issue a code of conduct for its justices.
"There's a good reason the American people are losing confidence in the independence and accountability of the Supreme Court," said Whitehouse, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, and Federal Rights. "Big special interests spend massive sums of money to rig the federal judiciary in their favor, and Supreme Court justices have the least stringent ethics and transparency rules of any senior federal officials. Our bicameral bill would help to hold judges to account and restore Americans' faith in their courts."
"The American people deserve and should expect that judges and justices are working for the public good, not enriching themselves and their families," said Johnson, Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet. "The Twenty-First Century Courts Act provides the framework to hold judges accountable and allows the public more access to justice."
"The reforms in this legislation should be really common-sense stuff that the Supreme Court and other federal courts do as a matter of course, but their resistance requires us to act. Our courts command no army or police force. They have no power of the purse. Their authority rests in the American people's belief in their independence and integrity. Now, their credibility is hanging by a thread. This bill will implement some basic accountability and transparency measures to begin restoring public trust and confidence in our courts -- the lifeblood of our judicial branch," said Senator Blumenthal.
"The American public deserves a justice system it can believe in, and that belief must be rooted in accountability and transparency" said Nadler, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "This essential legislation directly responds to the cascade of judicial ethics scandals that threaten to undermine the integrity of our federal courts."
"Transparency and accountability are at the heart of the public's trust in government. Americans deserve to know that officials in every branch of government is acting honorably and in the interest of the people, and the Supreme Court is no exception. That's why I have championed transparency in the federal courts since coming to Congress, and that's why I am proud to lead this charge to ensure the nation's highest court adopts and follows an ethics code. I believe that all Americans can agree that the Supreme Court must act fairly and impartially. A transparent and accountable judiciary is the first ingredient of restoring faith in our judicial system," said Congressman Quigley.
"To preserve Americans' faith in our court system, and to ensure it functions impartially and without undue influence, judges must be subject to the same ethics and transparency standards as all civil servants," said Cicilline, House sponsor of the Judicial Travel Accountability Act. "This bill will bring us closer to a fairer system, and I am proud to have the Judicial Travel Accountability Act included in this comprehensive reform package."
"No one should be above the law--especially not judges and justices," said Jones, Vice Chair of the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet. "The fact that Justice Clarence Thomas ruled on a case concerning the insurrection his wife helped plan shows us why we must hold our courts to basic ethics standards. This is a matter of legitimacy. The judiciary cannot expect the American people to respect its rulings when judges and justices do not respect our laws. We need the Twenty-First Century Courts Act, which will finally hold judges and justices accountable to rigorous, enforceable ethics standards."
The Twenty-First Century Courts Act takes several steps to dramatically improve the functioning and perception of the federal courts, including:
- Requiring the United States Supreme Court to develop an ethics code for justices after seeking comments from experts and the public;
- Raising recusal standards where judges and justices have conflicts of interest, creating new mechanisms to seek recusal, and requiring public disclosure of all recusal decisions;
- Requiring enhanced disclosure of gifts of travel and personal hospitality made to justices and judges from parties and organizations with business before the federal courts;
- Extending existing conflict-of-interest laws to the judiciary officers and employees; and
- Safeguarding the public's access to court proceedings and records, including through livestreaming of federal appellate and Supreme Court proceedings.
The Twenty-First Century Courts Act has garnered wide support from advocates for judicial reform, including the Project on Government Oversight and Fix the Court.
Fix the Court executive director Gabe Roth said: "Frankly, it's embarrassing that Congress has to step in and legislate fixes to the third branch's appallingly lax rules on ethics, recusal, travel and more. The judiciary, including the Supreme Court, could of course implement these improvements itself, and their opposition to these or any reforms that would deliver a measure of accountability is unjustifiable. Thankfully, leaders in Congress like Senator Whitehouse, Representative Johnson, and several of their colleagues are not deterred by this antipathy, and they are making a strong statement today about what a modern, respected, conflict-free judiciary should look like."
"Our Supreme Court is an incredibly powerful institution and must be guided by robust ethics and meaningful disclosure obligations," said Sarah Turberville, Director of The Constitution Project at the Project On Government Oversight. "The 21st Century Courts Act will bring long overdue and much-needed transparency and accountability to the Court. This bill is vital to protecting the independence and impartiality of the judiciary and Senator Whitehouse and Blumenthal and Representatives Johnson, Nadler, Quigley, Cicilline, and Jones should be commended for their leadership on this critical issue."