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Democratic members of Congress say Supreme Court is embroiled in an 'ethics crisis'

NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) about alleged ethics violations at the Supreme Court.



Democratic members of Congress say the U.S. Supreme Court is embroiled in an ethics crisis. They say conservative megadonors, along with, quote, "right-wing dark money networks," unquote, are corrupting the judicial system, and they are hosting a roundtable on Capitol Hill today to put a spotlight on the issue. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York is the vice ranking member of the Committee on Oversight and Responsibility. She is one of the lawmakers hosting the roundtable, and she's here with us now to tell us more. Good morning, Congresswoman. Thank you for joining us.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So in announcing the roundtable, you and your colleague, Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who is the ranking member of your committee, cited a number of concerns - the lack of a binding ethics policy, for example, the lack of enforcement. What's your single biggest concern surrounding the Supreme Court?

OCASIO-CORTEZ: I mean, I think my single biggest concern is that there is a very clearly laid-out dark money network that surrounds our court justices, and due to the complete lack of ethics enforcement around the Supreme Court, we are seeing a disturbing pattern in which the court's conduct, particularly around justices that have been receiving these, you know, largely - until now, largely unreported gifts - millions of dollars worth of gifts, too, you know, in the case of Justice Clarence Thomas - and the way that that is affecting their - not just their rulings and their opinions, but also their procedural decisions around the court as well. And that, in turn, is affecting our rulings on everything from Dobbs and the overturning of Roe v. Wade to environmental provisions, labor and more.

MARTIN: How do you - what's the chicken, and what's the egg here? I mean, sort of the implication here is that these justices are ruling the way they are because these donors are giving them these gifts. Why couldn't it be the other way, that they're giving them these gifts because they know they're going to vote on these issues to begin with, and that's why they're friends? I mean, in the case of Clarence Thomas and some of the gifts he's received, he says this is a longtime friend of his, and they're friends for the reason a lot of people are friends - because they think the same way. So how do you know that it's the consequence of this gift-giving, as opposed to the logical result?

OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, I mean, I think the fact that even this - even the fact that this conversation or even the fact that that defense, that kind of defense is invoked, is in and of itself a problem. Why are Supreme Court justices, who are in charge of some of the most important, consequential decisions facing millions of Americans, receiving millions of dollars worth of gifts from undisclosed sources? And if this was a situation that was so aboveboard, why did it go so long without documentation and flouting ethics rules? To me, I think that the greater problem here is - and there once upon a time, and even in the lower courts, has been a long-standing practice and a long-standing, frankly, ethical standard, that regardless of the causality, regardless of the chicken or the egg, the appearance - the mere appearance - of bias or the mere appearance of being exposed or connected to any party in a judicial proceeding or in a court proceeding in a way, is in and of itself compromising, so it really shouldn't matter whether it's - why a gift is being given. The fact that millions of dollars of undisclosed gifts are funneling directly to the conservative justices is in and of itself a crisis.

MARTIN: So there are, as - now that more disclosures have been made, there are other justices, including the liberal or progressive justices, who have gotten some nice things - some nice book contracts, for example, some other gifts. Is it your contention that this is mainly a Republican problem, or is this a court problem?

OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, I believe that writ large, you know, we believe that these ethics rules need to be changed to apply to the entire court and to all members. However, what the conservative wing of the court is engaged in, which I think is particularly concerning, is a documented pattern of receiving funds from individuals and organizations that have business before the court. In the case of Samuel Alito, he had - there were specific court proceedings before - there were cases before the court that had to do with Argentinian bonds, and there was an individual that was trying to get - Paul Singer was trying to get his case before the court. Not once, not twice, but on his third attempt - after taking the justice on, you know, these elaborate fishing trips and private jets - on his third attempt in getting the case before the court, it was then picked up. And in the case of Clarence Thomas, as well, you have people who are receiving funds, not just from friends and not just from old pals, but from people with business before the court or who are connected to amicus briefs before the court, which is an entirely different scenario. And this is not something that occurred on a one-off...

Editor's note (June 27, 2024): U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez incorrectly referred to multiple trips Justice Samuel Alito took as a guest of hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer. According to ProPublica, the news outlet that first reported this story, the associate justice accompanied Singer on a single trip in 2008. In addition, Ocasio-Cortez incorrectly said there were three attempts to get the court to hear the Argentina bond dispute. In total there were eight, brought at different times by both sides over different issues. In the end the court accepted one and ruled in Singer’s favor on a petition brought by Argentina


OCASIO-CORTEZ: ...Or even two times over decades. This is a documented pattern that continues to repeat itself.

MARTIN: Presumably, there are Republicans who are concerned about the credibility and image of the court. Are you working with any of these Republicans, and if so, why not?

OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, I think where we have seen Republicans express concern about the courts, if we've seen them express it at all, has largely been from members of the U.S. Senate - Republican members of the U.S. Senate. And to my knowledge, you know, we have two committees where we have both Senator Durbin, who's chairing the judiciary, and Senator Whitehouse, who are also leading investigatory proceedings on that. You know, I think it's - whether they're working more closely with their Republican colleagues I think is something that remains to be seen, but that's the big area where we could have, I think, some bipartisan windows for ethics reform.

MARTIN: That is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat of New York. She's a vice ranking member of the Committee on Oversight and Responsibility, and she's hosting a roundtable on these issues today. Congresswoman, thank you for joining us.

OCASIO-CORTEZ: Of course. Thank you.

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Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.