Democrat knocks Supreme Court as 'fact free zone,' says Congress can impose ethics rules

WASHINGTON − One of the most vocal Democratic critics of the Supreme Court claimed Sunday that the justices are operating in a "fact free zone" and said Congress "absolutely" has the power to impose ethical standards on the judicial branch, a response to Chief Justice John Roberts raising concerns about the separation of powers.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., slammed Justice Clarence Thomas for declining to recuse himself from cases dealing with the investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection. The justice's wife, Ginni Thomas, a longtime conservative political activist, advocated to keep Trump in the White House after he lost the 2020 election. Whitehouse said he doubted Justice Thomas was unaware of his wife's political activities.

"That is a question of fact," Whitehouse, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. "The problem with the Supreme Court is that they're in a fact-free zone as well as an ethics-free zone."

Ginni Thomas has said she doesn't discuss her political activities with her husband.

Roberts has suggested the justices themselves should police ethics and has flagged "separation of powers concerns" to suggest Congress' role in imposing policies on the court is limited. Whitehouse rejected that argument Sunday and many legal experts note Congress has always had a hand in establishing court procedures.

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"It absolutely can," Whitehouse said of Congress' power. "It's constitutional because the laws that we're talking about right now are actually laws passed by Congress."

The debate over whether Congress has the constitutional power to impose a code of ethics on the Supreme Court is somewhat academic at the moment. Transparency and ethics debates at the high court have become partisan and it does not appear there is support among most Republican lawmakers to approve legislation.

"The court does bring finality to things that sometimes I don't agree with, sometimes others don't agree with," Roy Blunt, a Republican former senator from Missouri, said on NBC. "But what we don't want to do is bring the court down with the rest of us."

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., on May 16, 2023.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., on May 16, 2023.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court: Sen. Whitehouse says Congress can impose ethics rules