Democrats’ push to impose a code of conduct on the U.S. Supreme Court is driven by their desire to exert power over a court that hasn’t been ruling their way on key issues, legal experts say.
Democrats and their left-wing activist allies have been incensed over the past two years as the court sent abortion matters back to the states, axed affirmative action in college admissions, bolstered gun rights and public prayer, backed a website designer’s right not to promote a same-sex wedding, and strengthened private property rights while weakening the government’s regulatory powers over the environment.
Several experts told The Epoch Times that the left cannot accept the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, so it will keep agitating against it and try to undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
So far, the activism has propelled the court to adopt its first-ever formal code of conduct, issued on Nov. 13, but Democrats say it’s a toothless gesture and won't fix what they say is a court that's overly sympathetic to business interests and conservative causes.
“The court’s new code of conduct falls far short of what we would expect from the highest court in the land,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said.
“While the code of conduct prohibits the appearance of impropriety, it allows the justice to individually determine whether their own conduct creates such an appearance in the minds of ‘reasonable members of the public.’ This is something that justices have repeatedly failed to do over the last few years.”
To remedy the supposed crisis at the court, Mr. Durbin backs the proposed Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act of 2023, which his committee approved on a party-line vote in July.
The proposal, which Republicans have denounced as unconstitutional, would create a system allowing members of the public to file complaints against justices for violating the proposed code of conduct or for engaging “in conduct that undermines the integrity of the Supreme Court of the United States.”
Among other things, it would also impose mandatory recusal standards and create a panel of lower court judges to investigate complaints against the Supreme Court.
Democrats are proposing their code of conduct “so they can control the Supreme Court," said Steven J. Allen, a distinguished senior fellow at Capital Research Center, a watchdog group.
"They’re doing this to get rid of one or more Republican appointees so they can be replaced,” Mr. Allen said.
“That’s almost the definition of ‘lawfare’—using the legal system to wage war on your opponents. You pack the court by knocking off a Republican or two.”
Mr. Durbin, a longtime antagonist of Justice Clarence Thomas, who's considered by many to be the court’s preeminent conservative jurist, has been particularly focused on the justice’s alleged transgressions.
Justice Thomas has been a lightning rod for criticism from the left for a long time.
Mr. Allen predicts the "smear campaign" against Justice Thomas "will continue as long as he’s alive."
Mr. Durbin and his committee colleagues issued a blizzard of public condemnations when earlier this year it was reported that billionaire Harlan Crow, a big Republican Party donor, gave Justice Thomas a series of luxurious vacations and tuition support for a grandnephew the latter raised and purchased real estate from the justice’s family.
Justice Thomas didn’t disclose the events at the time, saying he was advised that it wasn’t required, but he has vowed to disclose such events going forward.
No evidence has been uncovered to suggest that the justice’s vote in specific cases before the court was influenced by the gifts. Having wealthy friends isn’t against the law, the justice’s defenders say.
Justice Thomas is also routinely attacked by critics for the conservative activism of his wife, Ginni Thomas, a high-profile supporter of President Donald Trump.
Democrats, who have characterized Republican efforts to contest the 2020 presidential election after Election Day as an affront to democracy, were angered that Ms. Thomas reportedly signed form letters urging state lawmakers in Arizona and Wisconsin to overturn President Joe Biden’s election victory.
Ms. Thomas has also said she believes the 2020 election was rigged.
Liberal groups have called upon Justice Thomas to recuse himself from a plethora of cases related to the election and to President Trump’s ongoing criminal prosecutions. They argue that Justice Thomas and his wife are too close to Republicans.
Veteran Supreme Court watcher Curt Levey, president of the conservative Committee for Justice, said it's a one-way street.
“What are the odds that Senate Democrats would call on one of the liberal justices to recuse if that justice’s spouse had expressed strong public opinions about the 2020 election being fair?” he said.
They would never demand that a liberal justice recuse "because a spouse had expressed political opinions about newsworthy events," he said.
Jim Burling, vice president of legal affairs for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a national nonprofit public interest law firm that challenges government abuses, said the Durbin-backed SCERT bill and his committee’s investigation of conservative justices is an effort “to try to limit the legitimacy of the court.”
“They don’t like the fact that we have a court nowadays that’s not doing what the progressives think that the court should be doing,” he said.
It bothers them that the court is “very different today” from the way it was under Chief Justice Earl Warren (1953 to 1969) and Chief Justice Warren Burger (1969 to 1986) when the court veered left, Mr. Burling said.
“It upsets them that they can’t win the case on the merits, so you just throw mud around instead and try to obfuscate what the real issue is here," he said.
Mr. Levey said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), sponsor of the SCERT Act, has shown that he wants to keep putting pressure on the court’s conservative members.
The fact that the court adopted its own code shows that “even the Supreme Court, where they have lifetime tenure, can be pressured,” he said.
“This is why the Democrats are constantly attacking the Supreme Court because it does have an effect and you see the effect here,” Mr. Levey said.
“This is just another form of trying to harass and intimidate the court. Democrats have discovered over the years that if you let the conservative justices know that you’re going to make life difficult for them ... some of the center-right justices are fairly easily intimidated.”
Maybe about half of those justices will then “go out of their way not to anger the Democrats too much.” Mr. Levey said.
Politicians have been trying to manipulate the Supreme Court for a long time, Mr. Allen said, "by way of essentially harassing them."
He pointed to the 2010 State of the Union address when President Barack Obama took the unusual step of chastising the robed Supreme Court justices seated before him for their ruling in the Citizens United case, which changed campaign finance restrictions.
“With all due deference to separation of powers,” he said, the Citizens United precedent “will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections.”
Justice Samuel Alito shook his head in disagreement, appearing to mouth the words, “Not true.”
And in March 2020, at a pro-abortion rally outside the Supreme Court, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowed unspecified retribution against conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh should they vote to uphold a Louisiana law that imposed abortion restrictions.