Report of investigation into leaked draft of abortion decision is coming, Gorsuch says

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch said Thursday that the investigation into the leak of the draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade, is still continuing and that investigators will issue a report of those findings, but he made no promises that the results will be made public.

Speaking at the 10th Circuit Bench and Bar Conference in Colorado Springs, Gorsuch said that the “internal committee to oversee the investigation” appointed by Chief Justice John Roberts “has been busy, and we’re looking forward to their report, I hope soon.” How soon he would not say, nor would he say if that report would be seen by anyone outside of the Court. The conference organizers barred reporters from questioning Gorsuch or other judges participating.

Gorsuch continued, saying, “Improper efforts to influence judicial decision-making, from whatever side, are a threat.” Yes, from whatever side. “They inhibit our capacity to communicate with one another,” he said, chilling the communication between opposing justices, which “improves our final products,” he said. “I very much hope we get to the bottom of this sooner or later.”

Justice Samuel Alito’s anachronistic screed against abortion was leaked in early May of this year, weeks ahead of the final opinion. It showed precious little input from any dissenting justice, and was virtually identical to the final opinion. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that in the weeks between the leak and the decision, there might have been alterations inspired by one of the three liberals. In another universe, with another set of extremist justices and someone who is not Alito.

Campaign Action

Given all we’ve seen from the Court’s extremist, Trump-packed majority, it seems likelier than not that if the investigation determines the leak came from their camp, that report will never see the light of day. That’s how they like to do things, after all. Look at all the radical and democracy-breaking decisions they issued from the shadow docket, without holding any hearings, with no transparency, and in unsigned decisions consisting of one or two sentences.

But if the leak came from the minority—a clerk, a justice—or from support staff—a janitor—we’re a lot more likely to hear about it.

All we know about the investigation is that it heightened already existing tensions in the Court, according to long-time court reporter Nina Totenberg at NPR. Terrified clerks considered getting lawyers, after the court asked them to sign affidavits and open up their cellphones to the investigators. They were in a no-win situation. Assert their right to get a lawyer and not turn over their phone, and they would immediately be under suspicion, a potentially career-ending situation.

On the other hand, the justices themselves are basically untouchable. No one can demand of them that they turn over cellphones or even cooperate with investigators. If one of the justices was responsible for the leak, we will probably never know.

There’s no code of ethics governing the Supreme Court, and the only remedy for dealing with a rogue justice is impeachment. Impeachment, or court reform and expansion. It’s long past time that Congress applied the same code of conduct to the Supreme Court as to every other federal judge.

It’s also time to impose other reforms, including court expansion, to make correct the horrific imbalance Trump and Mitch McConnell created with their court packing.

Clarence and Ginni Thomas take center stage at House hearing on Supreme Court ethics

The federal judiciary is on tap for the House Wednesday—specifically, the topic of reforming the federal judiciary. The House has a raft of suspension bills (legislation that doesn’t require the regular rules process on the floor) it will run through, including the bipartisan Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act, which the Senate already passed in February. While that’s happening, the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts will hold a hearing on Supreme Court ethics, or lack thereof.

That’s the juicy part of the day, with lawmakers spurred on by the disclosure of Ginni Thomas’ text messages showing the depth of her involvement in trying to promote a coup. As the spouse of a wildly partisan political activist, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at the very least should have recused from any cases related to the 2020 election and Donald Trump. Which of course he did not. This hearing will examine the lack of Supreme Court ethics and Congress’ role in dealing with that, including impeachment.

A memo obtained by The Hill from subcommittee chair Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) and sent to members ahead of the hearing outlines the existing codes of conduct that apply to other federal judges and summarizes legislative proposals that would extend the code to Supreme Court justices. As of right now, they’re exempt from it and are expected to discipline themselves—which, in Thomas’ case, doesn’t happen. The memo also outlines Congress’ impeachment authority as one of the tools at their disposal.

“Threats or inquiries of impeachment as a means of regulating the conduct of Supreme Court justices have had varying effects,” the memo said. Just one justice in the nation’s history has been impeached by the House, Samuel Chase in 1804. He was not convicted by the Senate. In 1969, Justice Abe Fortas resigned over an impeachment threat. The current crop of Republican justices pretty much thumb their nose at the idea of ethics, in contrast to the newest justice-designate, Ketanji Brown Jackson, who has preemptively recused herself from an affirmative action case before she’s even been officially seated on the court.

Markos and Kerry talk Ukraine and speak with Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler on how hitting back at Republicans helps win elections

The memo makes it clear that this hearing is about the Thomases and the increasing calls for action  “following the reporting about text messages between the spouse of an associate justice and the then-White House Chief of Staff.”

“The Supreme Court has long operated as though it were above the law. But, Justice Clarence Thomas’ refusal to recuse himself from cases surrounding January 6th, despite his wife’s involvement, raises serious ethical—and legal—alarm bells,” vice chair of the subcommittee Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY), said ahead of the hearing. “The need for strong, enforceable ethics laws is clearer than ever. We have to do more to hold the Court accountable and restore public trust through a binding code of ethics and recusal.”

“Recent reports that the text messages of a justice’s spouse urging the overturning of a free and fair election may have been at issue in a case in front the Supreme Court—but that the justice did not recuse himself from the case—is just the latest and particularly egregious example in an unfortunately long list of illustrations as to why Supreme Court justices need to follow a formal code of ethics,” Johnson told The Hill. “I have been calling for this sort of reform for years, and I am encouraged to see a large, bipartisan majority of the public in favor of this long overdue legislation.”

Republicans, and particularly Senate Republicans, are unlikely to agree because it’s their justices behaving badly. It is, however, important for Democrats to keep pushing that point and to keep up the drumbeat for reform. The threat of some kind of action from Congress—a SCOTUS code of ethics, court expansion, impeachment—is at this point the only leverage that exists against the rogue Supreme Court majority.

The legislation they will pass Wednesday (a slightly different version passed 422-4 in December) will help some toward that effort. It also demonstrates that even the most hardcore partisan Republicans—in this case the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Cornyn—recognize that there has to be at least the gloss of accountability for the Supreme Court. The bill toughens financial disclosure requirements for federal judges, including Supreme Court justices. They will have to make financial holdings and stock trades publicly available online, in the interest of disclosing conflicts of interest that would warrant judges recusing themselves from related cases.

As it currently stands, the parties involved in a case can request to see the judge’s financial disclosures, as can members of the public, but the judges themselves get to decide how much information they release and when. They have sole discretion in redacting information and can take all the time they want to fulfill requests.

The legislation is a result of a report last fall in the Wall Street Journal that found more than 130 judges broke the law by hearing cases in which they had a financial interest instead of recusing themselves. The Journal found 685 lawsuits that were decided by judges with a financial stake, with the potential fallout of hundreds of cases being overruled.

When the Journal alerted the judges to these violations, “56 of the judges […] directed court clerks to notify parties in 329 lawsuits that they should have recused themselves. That means new judges might be assigned, potentially upending rulings.” Most of the judges gave lame excuses or played dumb. “I had no idea that I had an interest in any of these companies in what was a most modest retirement account,” said Judge Timothy Batten Sr. of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, who owned JPMorgan Chase stock and ruled favorably for the bank in several cases.

Under this legislation, everyone in the judiciary branch will have to follow disclosure requirements like those that apply to lawmakers, reporting within 45 days all stock trades of more than $1,000. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts will have to create an online database, searchable and publicly accessible, of judicial financial disclosure forms and will have to get those forms into the database within 90 days from when they’re filed. The new law will apply to Supreme Court justices as well as federal appellate, district court, bankruptcy, and magistrate judges. The database has to be online within six months of President Joe Biden signing the bill.