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Dozens of advocacy groups join call for Senate probe into Justice Alito

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Supreme Court, has so far demurred from a formal investigation into reports that symbols associated with right-wing political movements appeared outside the justice’s homes.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A coalition of policy organizations and judicial advocacy groups on Monday ratcheted up pressure on Senate Democrats to investigate Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and hold the high court accountable for what they described as a pattern of ethical malfeasance.

“The justices on our nation’s highest court must hold themselves to the highest ethical standards, yet we have witnessed time and time again that certain justices have repeatedly failed to meet that foundational duty,” wrote the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a letter to senators, signed by more than 60 other organizations.

The organization has previously urged lawmakers to force an ethics reckoning at the Supreme Court — but this latest call comes on the heels of reports that two flags associated with the “Stop the Steal” election denial movement were spotted flying above homes belonging to Alito.

Those revelations prompted lawmakers, led by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, to demand that the justice recuse himself from any Supreme Court cases related to the 2020 presidential election and the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. Alito, however, rejected these overtures, and Democrats have expressed little appetite to take more drastic action on the issue.

But the Leadership Conference said Monday that lawmakers should not take that refusal lying down, calling on the Senate Judiciary Committee to step up to the plate.

“In addition to promptly passing robust judicial ethics reform legislation that includes an enforceable Code of Conduct for Supreme Court justices and other recusal and transparency measures,” they said, “we urge you to immediately launch an investigation into the latest issues surrounding Justice Alito’s behavior.”

Any committee investigation, they added, should report on whether the justice’s conduct ran afoul of the non-binding code of conduct that the Supreme Court adopted late last year, signed by all nine justices.

The display of right-wing protest flags at Alito’s residences “erode confidence that justices will comport themselves with integrity and impartiality, further degrading the public’s esteem for our Supreme Court," the Conference wrote.

Issuing their own call on the justice to recuse himself from election-related cases, the organization argued that Alito had not sufficiently explained why displaying symbols related to the “Stop the Steal” movement would not create the appearance of political bias on the bench.

Alito has previously said that his wife was responsible for the displays — an upside-down American flag flown outside his Virginia home and an “Appeal to Heaven” flag hoisted above his New Jersey vacation home — and that he was not aware of their significance to right-wing protest movements.

The Leadership Conference, however, countered that the justice owns and occupies both residences and that any reasonable observer could infer that he supports the messages of symbols which appear outside his homes.

“His response fails to engage with the core problem that the flags were displayed at his residences and the appearance of bias created,” they said.

The Supreme Court has refused to self-regulate, the Leadership Conference argued, and the door is wide open for the Senate and its judiciary committee to act.

“These abuses of power, left unchecked, have already become more frequent and more severe, further corroding the public’s faith in our judicial system and weakening our democracy,” they told lawmakers. “Without immediate and public investigatory action, this crisis will only deepen.”

Durbin, for his part, has been mum about whether the judiciary committee will investigate Alito’s conduct — although he has long been a proponent of Supreme Court ethics reform and was loudly critical of the justice’s behavior.

Judiciary experts have been unhappy with the Illinois Democrat’s handling of the situation, accusing him of advancing a “tepid” oversight process and arguing that he has prioritized maintaining a sense of bipartisan collegiality with Senate Republicans over securing accountability on the high court.

Durbin is also facing pressure from Democratic colleagues to open a committee probe. Georgia Representative Hank Johnson and Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal joined advocates on the steps of the Supreme Court last week and urged the Senate to haul Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts before the judiciary committee.

“There are things we can do to put out the fire,” Johnson said at the event. “Number one: we need to have some hearings in the Senate.”

Meanwhile, legislation that would force the Supreme Court to draft a binding code of ethics remains in a holding pattern on the Senate floor. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said last week that he was working with Durbin to bring the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency, or SCERT, Act up for a vote, but he did not say when such action might take place.

Sponsored by Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, the SCERT Act would force the high court to develop a code of ethical standards in the public eye and would establish a transparent mechanism for justices to recuse themselves from certain cases. The bill would also set up an independent board to review ethics complaints against the Supreme Court.

Renewed oversight pressure on the Senate also comes just days after the Supreme Court published financial disclosure documents for eight of its nine justices.

Justice Clarence Thomas took the opportunity to amend his 2019 financial disclosure report to reflect two trips paid for by billionaire real estate tycoon and conservative megadonor Harlan Crow. Reports that Thomas failed to report luxury vacations on Crow’s dime kickstarted scrutiny of the Supreme Court last year.

Alito, meanwhile, was granted a 90-day extension to file his own financial disclosure information.

Responding to criticism surrounding its lack of ethical standards, the Supreme Court last year inked a formal code of conduct for its justices. While experts initially hailed the move as a step in the right direction, they have since soured on the framework — which some argue lacks a clear enforcement mechanism.

Follow @BenjaminSWeiss
Categories / Courts, Government, National, Politics

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