Mar 30, 2023

SCOTUS Under New Ethics Rule Thanks to Sen. Whitehouse Transcript

SCOTUS Under New Ethics Rule Thanks to Sen. Whitehouse Transcript
RevBlogTranscriptsEthicsSCOTUS Under New Ethics Rule Thanks to Sen. Whitehouse Transcript

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse says the new ethics rule states that Supreme Court justices have to disclose certain gifts and trips, but describes the “huge” gap that remains to gain ethical transparency. Read the transcript here.

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Lawrence O’Donnell (00:00):

Senator, congratulations. You have forced them to take one small step in the direction of the way you all live in the Senate, with financial disclosure and transparency, be it about gifts or any sort of contributions you get. What are we going to learn now that we couldn’t learn before?

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (00:20):

Well, the justices aren’t supposed to get gifts of hospitality and not report it. There’s an exception for that, for personal hospitality. If you visit your daughter and your son-in-law for a holiday, for instance. They had undertaken the practice of taking that personal hospitality exemption and applying it if they had a personal invitation from someone, so they were not-

Lawrence O’Donnell (00:53):

You mean if the invitation came from a human being-

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (00:55):


Lawrence O’Donnell (00:56):

Instead of a corporation that is paying for the whole thing.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (00:59):


Lawrence O’Donnell (00:59):


Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (01:00):

The owner of a resort could be recruited to offer a free vacation to a Supreme Court Justice, who could then accept the vacation and not report the gift. Now, bad enough if the Supreme Court Justice is just doing it to get a free vacation, but you could well imagine that with all the influence that’s operating around the Supreme Court, big interests could be making the call for the justice. “Hey, why don’t you invite justice so-and-so for a nice week at your resort, at your lodge, and he won’t have to report it, and we’ll reimburse you, and we’ll bring some friends along who care about guns, who are ardent opponents of abortion, who want them to rule a certain way in a corporate case, and we’ll all hang out together and have a very nice time and it’ll never be reported.”

Lawrence O’Donnell (01:53):

And so, this-

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (01:54):

That will no longer happen.

Lawrence O’Donnell (01:55):

That will no longer happen. How far are we? What’s the gap that remains between what you’ve managed to achieve and what real, ethical transparency would look like?

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (02:06):

Huge, because they remain still under no judicial ethics code. This relates back to a congressional statute. They’re still under no ethics code, but more important really than being under no ethics code is that there’s no process for investigating whether or not there was a violation of the ethics code.

To your questions about Mrs. Thomas, those are actually in investigatable things. You could begin to find out with investigators who ran the money through donor’s trust, $600,000 worth, to her group. Was it the same donors who ran money through donor’s trust, $7 million worth, in just one year to the Federalist Society while they were helping pick the justices who got on the Supreme Court? That’s a pretty good conflict of interest when a group is funding who gets on the court and then rewarding the justice, potentially, or related justice, with big payments to his wife’s entity.

Lawrence O’Donnell (03:09):

Imagine the day when Clarence Thomas might be coming up any day now before April 15th, where he’s co-signing the joint tax return of Clarence Thomas and Virginia Thomas, and he sees some huge number there, possibly huge number. Does he ask his wife, “How did we make $15 million this year?”, or $25 million, or $2 million, whatever it is.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (03:42):

In any other place in the government, in all of the other federal courts, in the Senate, and the House, and throughout the executive branch of government, if that were a question, an investigator would go out and ask it. Maybe Justice Thomas would not tell the truth, but ordinarily people do, and one way or the other, there would be a record in which he had said to an investigator, “This is what I knew. This is when I knew it. This is what she told me. This is how it bears on my judicial duties.” All of that completely vanishes in one place in the United States government, and that’s our Supreme Court.

Lawrence O’Donnell (04:21):

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, how does the one-step victory feel tonight?

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (04:26):


Lawrence O’Donnell (04:26):

Pretty good.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (04:27):

Oh, yeah.

Lawrence O’Donnell (04:27):

Pretty good. It’s something-

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (04:28):


Lawrence O’Donnell (04:28):

It’s a first.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (04:28):

Credit, by the way, to the judicial conference, the group of other judges who forced this rule through.

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