WASHINGTON, D.C. - Following reports of potential ethical violations by Supreme Court justices in recent months, a Senate committee held a hearing on judicial ethics. Members were split on whether this is a congressional issue or not.  

In April, ProPublica reported that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has received free trips from a republican mega donor. Some said this is a potential violation of ethics and disclosure requirements. The report brought fresh attention to judicial ethics. 

The American Bar Association said while Supreme Court justices must adhere to some ethical requirements set by federal statute, they are not bound by any rules that include the full sweep of basic ethical principles that apply to other judges. The ABA said an independent judiciary is the cornerstone of the rule of law and our constitutional republic. The ABA adds the absence of a clearly articulated, binding code of ethics for the justices of the court imperils the legitimacy of the Court.  

The recent Senate hearing focused on how the Judicial Conference of the United States, which serves as the policy making body for federal courts, looked at the possible financial ethics violations by Justice Thomas and what their process is. 

Democrats have argued that Justice Thomas’ potential violations show that congress needs to step in and create an ethics outline for the highest court. Democrats said the Senate hearing on the Judicial Conference is necessary because the Judicial Conference is a statutory body and the Ethics in Government Act is a federal statute. However, republicans accuse democrats of attacking the Court.  

“The Judicial Conference has a committee on financial disclosure,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D- RI). “Our request about the recent Thomas allegations was sent there. I've urged that the committee to act to dispatch and provide us information to understand how the process is handled.” 

“This is a continued effort to undermine the United States Supreme Court that isn’t ruling the way some of my democratic colleagues want,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R- LA).  

A couple of weeks ago Chief Justice John Roberts declined to testify before the Senate Judiciary. Roberts sent a letter to senators saying that justices seek to abide by the code of conduct followed by the lower courts. He insisted that the existing rules around gifts, travel and other financial disclosures are enough. 

Recent surveys show public confidence in the Supreme Court is at its lowest since 1973.