WASHINGTON – When the Senate Judiciary Committee held a partisan brawl this week over the ethics of the U.S. Supreme Court, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who wants reforms, verbally slapped down a witness whom she said “dissed” the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Thomas Dupree, a deputy assistant attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, said Congress does not have the constitutional authority to mandate a code of ethics for the Supreme Court and the nation’s highest court “is not like the USDA,” whose civil servants must adhere to a strict code of ethics. Klobuchar took those comments as an insult to the nation’s second-largest federal agency (the largest being the Pentagon).
“I really wasn’t planning to ask you questions until you dissed the Department of Agriculture,” Klobuchar told Dupree.
The senior senator from Minnesota said she did some quick research on the USDA, which she said was founded by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, and reminded Dupree she represented “a big ag. state.”
“I think there is every reason that this court should have the same ethical rules as the fine Department of Agriculture and that we don’t look at that as a bad thing,” Klobuchar said. “We should look at that as a good thing.”
Dupree hastily tried to assure Klobuchar that he meant “no disrespect to the Department of Agriculture.”
“That is a hallowed, hallowed agency,” he said, adding that his comments were aimed at pointing out the difference in the makeup of federal agencies and the Supreme Court. But Klobuchar was unconvinced, insisting the witness had insulted the nation’s agricultural sector.
“I think a lot of people in the Midwest noticed it,” she said.
The hearing was organized by Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill., after allegations of impropriety by several justices were recently disclosed and several Democratic senators introduced legislation, supported by Klobuchar, that would impose new ethics rules on the Supreme Court.
Those allegations of breaches of ethics included Justice Clarence Thomas’s acceptance of expensive trips and gifts from GOP megadonor Harlan Crow. On Thursday there was a new disclosure about the relationship between the justice and the billionaire, that Crow paid for the private boarding school tuition for Thomas’ grandnephew.
There are also concerns about the purchase of property co-owned by Justice Neil Gorsuch in Granby, Colo. by the head of one of the firms. Gorsuch had tried to sell the 40-acre tract of land for two years, but was only able to do so nine days after being sworn in as a Supreme Court justice.
Chief Justice John Roberts, whose wife is under scrutiny for accepting more than $10 million in fees for recruiting lawyers to top law firms, was invited to be the star witness. But Roberts declined, instead providing a nonbinding “Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices” signed by all nine justices.
So, the hearing featured witnesses invited by Republican senators – like Dupree – who said a congressional bill imposing a code of ethics on the Supreme Court would violate the separation of power doctrine and witnesses invited by Democrats who testified that the U.S. Constitution gave Congress the authority to do so.
Amanda Frost, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, said Article III of the U.S. Constitution “leaves to Congress that essential role of administering the court, and Congress has always done so.” Frost pointed out that Congress determines the high court’s schedule and how many justices sit on its bench, among other things.
Also differing with the GOP view were two constitutional experts who submitted written testimony – retired Judge J. Michael Luttig, a former federal appeals judge, and Laurence Tribe, a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School. They said Congress could impose a conduct code on the justices, but it could not order the Supreme Court to adopt its own ethics code.
Durbin said the Supreme Court could act on its own to establish a mandatory set of ethical principles, but the high court “won’t even acknowledge it’s a problem.”
“Because the court will not act, Congress must,” Durbin said.
Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., has another idea of how Congress should be involved in the workings of the Supreme Court and that’s for Democrats to take advantage of their majority in the U.S. Senate to expand the number of seats on the Supreme Court, which now has a 6-3 conservative majority.
“Code of ethics. Expand the Court. Save democracy,” Smith tweeted Thursday.
‘Words can only paint so many pictures’
With the House in recess this week, Rep. Pete Stauber, R-8th District, decided it would be a good time to bring some of his GOP colleagues to the Iron Range to help him promote what he views as a need for new nickel and copper mines in the state. Stauber was able to hold the hearing because he is the chairman of a House Natural Resources subcommittee with jurisdiction on mining.
So Stauber held his hearing, titled “Examining the Mineral Wealth of Northern Minnesota,” in the Mountain Iron-Buhl Public School Auditorium. The event was kicked off with a prayer, “Pledge of Allegiance” and the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” and featured announcement about school bus departures, making it seem like a cross between a congressional hearing and a high school sporting event.
Stauber was joined by Republican Reps. Mike Collins of Georgia, Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin, Rob Wittman of Virginia, Jack Bergman of Michigan and Larry Bucshon of Indiana, who toured the site of the proposed NewRange Copper Nickel mine near Babbitt before the hearing. They praised northeastern Minnesota’s natural beauty and supported efforts to establish new mining in the area.
No Democratic members of the Natural Resources Committee made the trip.
“They were all invited to the committee hearing on mining,” Stauber said.
The congressman who represents the Iron Range also said he felt it was necessary for his colleagues to travel to northeast Minnesota.
“Words can only paint so many pictures,” he said.
Witnesses included Jessica Johnson, a lobbyist for Talon Metals, mining geologist Dean Peterson and Joe Baltich, owner of Northwind Lodge in Ely. They testified that proposed copper and nickel mining ventures in Minnesota are both necessary to fill the nation’s need for metals needed to build electric cars, solar panels and other green technology and said extraction could be done in an environmentally safe manner.
Baltich spoke of iron mining when his grandfather worked as an iron miner and millions of gallons of wastewater made its way into the Rainy River Watershed.
“During that time, there were resorts running and people were doing business, everything was fine,” Baltich said. “I wouldn’t recommend dumping millions of gallons of water a day now. That’s insane. But that’s what they did back then and for years the Boundary Waters were secure.”
Stauber’s hearing drew condemnation from opponents of copper and nickel mining in Minnesota who say the tailings of these sulfide-containing minerals could leach sulfuric acid into groundwater.
“We are disappointed that Rep. Pete Stauber has decided to conduct a field hearing that is not representative of the majority of his constituents’ interests,” said Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
Rom also said that Baltich, one of Stauber’s “handpicked” witnesses, had advocated for mining in the Boundary Waters’ Lake One.
“If this is the type of witness Rep. Stauber brings before Congress to testify, there is no telling where he will stop,” Rom said. “That’s why legislation to permanently protect this Wilderness forever is critical.”
In January, the Biden administration imposed a 20-year mining moratorium on 225,000 acres of the Superior National Forest that bars Twin Metals from constructing a proposed copper, cobalt and nickel mine in the forest.
Stauber has recently introduced a bill that would nullify that ban.
“Congress is exercising its authority to roll back this misguided ban and secure our domestic mineral supply chains,” Stauber said. “It is well past time for elected officials, not appointed bureaucrats, to dictate how and when America’s abundant resources and public lands are utilized.”
Stauber is also the sponsor of a bill approved by the House as part of a GOP debt ceiling increase/spending cut package that would streamline the federal mine permitting process.
However, both of Stauber’s bills face an uphill climb in the Democratic-held Senate.
Meanwhile, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe issued a statement condemning the promotion of Talon Metals’ proposed nickel, copper and cobalt mine in Tamarack.
“Nickel and copper mining practices threaten Minnesota’s unique ecosystem and clean water, putting critical drinking water sources and habitats at risk,” the tribe said.