WASHINGTON — Those hoping for big changes at the Supreme Court after controversy over potential conflicts of interest were disappointed with a new code of ethics the court issued this week.
“The absence of a Code … has led in recent years to the misunderstanding that the Justices of this Court, unlike all other jurists in this country, regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules,” the justices wrote in the introduction to their new code. “To dispel this misunderstanding, we are issuing this Code, which largely represents a codification of principles that we have long regarded as governing our conduct.”
The code comes after a series of scandals about the acceptance of gifts and other favors by several justices, especially Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, from wealthy political donors.
Signed by all nine justices, the first-ever code of ethics for the Supreme Court covers everything from the acceptance of gifts to recusal standards.
But the code looks forward rather than backward, and there are no provisions for investigations or the imposition of penalties.
“It really is in a very large sense just a reiteration of a code of conduct that they had already held themselves to,” said Timothy R. Johnson, a professor of political science and law at the University of Minnesota. “There is no enforcement mechanism, there is no oversight of the court.”
And Johnson said there is plenty of evidence that “the justices haven’t policed themselves.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee is working on legislation that would require the Supreme Court to adhere to an enforceable code of ethics and had planned to issue subpoenas – a move that has been delayed – to right-wing Court influencers Harlan Crow, Leonard Leo and Robin Arkley II.
However, anything Congress does to try to impose oversight of the behavior of Supreme Court justices would be challenged under the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine.
Yet Johnson said the Constitution does give Congress some authority. It can impeach a judge, although that would take a two-thirds vote in the Senate for a conviction, something that isn’t likely to happen in that chamber which is nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
Congress could also use its power of the purse to punish the Supreme Court by cutting its budget. And, according to Johnson, it could use Article 3 of the U.S. Constitution, known as the “exception clause,” because that clause gives Congress significant control over a federal court’s jurisdiction and proceedings. That means Congress could bar the Supreme Court from considering certain types of cases.
“Congress needs to take a hardline stand,” Johnson said.
Klobuchar moves to unblock hundreds of military promotions
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, had a victory this week in a long-simmering standoff that has halted most military promotions for months.
As a protest against the Pentagon’s policy of covering abortion travel costs for service members and dependents, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, has refused since February to allow quick approval of most promotions of generals, admirals and other high-level military officials.
This has frustrated Senate Democrats – and many Senate Republicans.
So, Klobuchar, the chair of the Senate Rules Committee, working with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, proposed a resolution that was approved by her committee that would allow the quick confirmation of a group of more than 350 military promotions that have been held up.
“Hundreds of critical positions are left unfilled and our national security is at risk. Today we made it clear – enough is enough,” Klobuchar posted on X after Tuesday’s vote to send the resolution to the U.S. Senate floor.
Many Senate Republicans are angered at Tuberville for holding up Pentagon promotions and have joined Democrats in warning the Alabama senator that he is hurting the nation’s military preparedness. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has opposed bringing the resolution that would break the deadlock to the Senate floor for a vote – at least not right away. And Democrats need the votes of at least nine Republicans for the resolution’s approval.
McConnell wants some time to reach a deal with Tuberville over the abortion issue, but, unless Tuberville relents soon, there are enough angry Senate Republicans who will vote for the resolution after the U.S. Senate returns from its Thanksgiving break.
A new Feeding our Future scandal probe
The Republican members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation took a swipe at the Walz administration this week by demanding information from the Minnesota Department of Education regarding a massive fraud that siphoned off more than $250 million in federal pandemic funds that were aimed to feed Minnesota children during the pandemic.
The “Feeding our Future” fraud involved two programs operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was run on the state level by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE).
The programs were usually administered in schools and day care centers. But during the pandemic, the USDA loosened the rules and allowed restaurants to participate. Prosecutors say the 60 defendants in the case, all tied to a nonprofit called Feeding our Future, took advantage of the new rules to use money aimed at feeding the children for personal benefit, purchasing homes, cars, trips and jewelry, among other things. A dozen of those charged have pleaded guilty.
Minnesota’s GOP lawmakers, joined by Republican Reps. Virginia Foxx, the chair of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce; Glenn Thompson, the chair of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee and James Comer, the chair of the U.S. House Oversight Committee, sent a letter asking for information about how the Minnesota Department of Education “failed to prevent this fraud, which has been described as the ‘largest COVID-19 fraud scheme in the nation.’”
“Due to a lack of transparency from the State of Minnesota and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we are no closer to understanding how $250 million of taxpayer funds were stolen from children and families in need. Minnesotans deserve answers. We will continue to do our work to hold those responsible to account and prevent this from occurring again,” Rep. Tom Emmer, R-6th District, said in a release.
The House Republican lawmakers are intent on conducting their own investigation of the scandal – Emmer asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in July for documents relating to Feeding our Future. Yet the U.S. Justice Department has been at work on the case for more than a year.
Rep. Brad Finstad, R-1st District, said congressional action is necessary.
“It is critical that we have all the information necessary from MDE to understand the extent to which these programs were exploited by bad actors at the expense of hungry kids and families,” Finstad said. “My colleagues and I remain committed to demanding transparency at every level of government to get the answers we need in order to safeguard these food programs and hold accountable those responsible for allowing this fraud to occur.”
This and that
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-5th District, joined by several of her “Squad” colleagues, introduced a resolution this week that would block the export license for $320 million worth of “Spice Family Guided Bomb Assemblies” to Israel.
The assemblies, produced by Rafael USA, an American subsidiary of an Israeli defense contractor, are designed to turn unguided bombs into GPS-guided munitions. Omar said these weapons have been used in the bombing of Gaza by Israeli forces, which has resulted in more than 11,000, mostly civilian, deaths.
“Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right ethnonationalist government continue to commit war crimes in their siege of the Gaza Strip,” Omar said in a press release. “From requests to minimize civilian casualties, avoid a ground invasion, avoid reoccupation of Gaza, and institute a meaningful humanitarian pause, Netanyahu continues to thumb his nose at U.S. policy and requests. … It is the responsibility of Congress to exercise oversight over weapons sales. That is why we must not allow weapons sales that will be used to directly violate U.S. and international law, human rights, and our own moral standing in the world.”
The resolution has little chance of approval by the U.S. House, but its introduction is a sign of the growing concerns, especially among progressives, of the rising number of civilian deaths in Gaza.
Meanwhile, Rep. George Santos, R-New York, said on Thursday he would not run for reelection. He made his announcement shortly after the House Ethics Committee released a report on the lawmaker that said the panel’s investigation found “substantial evidence” Santos had violated federal criminal laws.
The bipartisan concluded Santos “blatantly stole” from his campaign and sought to “fraudulently exploit every aspect of his House candidacy” for personal financial gain. Some of the expenditures made with campaign money included purchases at OnlyFans, a website frequently used to host pornography, and Hermes, the luxury leather goods store. Campaign money was also spent on spa services and cosmetic procedures, the Ethics Committee said.
Santos was adamant that he would not leave Congress before his term is up.
“I will not stand by as I am stoned by those who have flaws themselves,” Santos wrote on X.
But the controversial congressman may not have a choice. Santos has barely survived two efforts to expel him from Congress and is unlikely to survive a third.
Your questions and comments
While Congress narrowly averted a government shutdown this week, the “laddered continuing resolution” it approved to continue to fund the federal government has only pushed the problem to early next year. There seems to be no way to reach agreement on funding levels and policy changes, so the reality is the threat of a shutdown is still very much alive. Case in point: the Minnesota congressional delegation’s split vote on the stopgap measure, which I wrote about earlier this week.
A reader this week asked me this:
“I would also like to see an article on why state and federal reps & senators get paid during government shut downs AND to finish their business in special sessions. Who gets paid for not doing their job? Looks like that is about to happen again with another temporary budget coming afterwards.”
I responded that I do not know much about why state legislators get paid, but as far as members of Congress, the U.S. Constitution and federal law mandates they continue receiving their salary, currently $174,000 a year for rank-and-file members, whether the federal government is fully functioning or not.
The paychecks of members of Congress are considered permanent appropriations and not subject to the same budgetary guidelines that other federal workers are under. Also, by law, members of Congress are not allowed to alter their pay for a current session. So those who don’t want to receive pay during a shutdown get paid anyway, although they could donate that money to a charity.
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