Jessica M. Karmasek Aug. 7, 2013, 2:45pm

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- A group of Democratic lawmakers last week reintroduced legislation requiring U.S. Supreme Court justices to adopt and follow a code of ethics similar to that of federal judges.

On Thursday, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced the Supreme Court Ethics Act of 2013.

Unlike every other federal judge, Supreme Court justices are exempt from the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, a binding code of ethics that ensures neutrality and transparency in the courts.

The Supreme Court Ethics Act of 2013 would require the nation's high court to adopt a similar code of ethics within 180 days of passage.

Slaughter, Murphy, Whitehouse and Blumenthal, a former Connecticut attorney general, pointed to a recent Gallup poll finding that Americans' approval of the court is almost at an all-time low.

The poll results, released last month, showed that the court's approval rating has declined to its lowest level since June 2005, 43 percent.

That means that slightly more Americans disapprove of the court than approve. Gallup noted that has happened only one other time since it first asked the question in 2000.

The lawmakers also pointed to a "string of dubious ethical behavior," which has increased scrutiny and eroded public confidence in the court.

Concerns include justices allowing their names to be used to promote political fundraisers, attending seminars sponsored by high-profile political donors, failing to report family income from politically active groups, and failing to recuse themselves when deciding cases where there exists a conflict of interest.

The lawmakers also pointed to the court's recent pattern of siding with corporate interests.

"In order to restore the people's trust, the Supreme Court needs to adopt a Code of Conduct -- just as every other federal judge is required by law," Slaughter said in a statement.

"As the highest court in the land and the ultimate arbiter of justice in America, the integrity of our justices should be beyond reproach, and this law will ensure that we hold true to the standards on which this country was founded."

Slaughter helped champion similar legislation last Congress after more than 200 legal scholars urged the court to adopt the federal Code of Conduct.

Since then, more than 125,000 Americans have signed a petition to Chief Justice John Roberts asking him to adopt a code of ethics for the high court.

"The American people deserve to know that our highest court is held to the highest ethical standard, and this bill aims to make the court more accountable and transparent," Murphy said in a statement. "As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, 'Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.'

"It's time that we apply that same ideal to the Supreme Court, and this bill will help guarantee the integrity of our country's highest court."

Blumenthal said no justice should advance a partisan cause or sit on a case involving a personal friend or interest.

"There is no persuasive reason in law or logic why Supreme Court Justices should not be held to the same high standard as other federal judges," he said in a statement.

Whitehouse agreed.

"Every other federal judge in America is already subject to a code of conduct, and our Supreme Court justices should be, too," he said in a statement.

Liberal advocacy group Alliance for Justice also is pushing for the legislation.

"Every single federal judge in America is subject to a code of conduct -- with the glaring exception of the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court," President Nan Aaron said in a statement last week.

"Supreme Court justices should be able to resist the temptation to lend the prestige of their office to partisan political causes, or fraternize with and fund raise on behalf of those who could have a financial stake in Court decisions.

"Unfortunately, some of the justices sitting on the Supreme Court today have been unable to resist that temptation. That's why we need a code of conduct for the Supreme Court -- and why we wholeheartedly support this legislation."

Amanda Frost, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law, said the legislation will restore the public's faith in the court.

"Every state supreme court has adopted a code of ethics, and every other federal judge in the country is bound by one as well. The Supreme Court of the United States should be no exception," she said in a statement.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at

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