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Supreme Court Split on Ethics Committee, Kagan Reveals


The liberal justice shed some light on the high court's inner workings.

The United States Supreme Court is caught in a divisive debate over ethical regulation, after a series of controversial decisions and multiple scandals caught public scrutiny this term.

Earlier this year, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito were accused of accepting and neglecting to report generous donations from billionaires. Concerned with their illicit financial conduct, a group of House democrats called on Chief Justice John Roberts to establish an independent ethics committee that could investigate the claims against Thomas and Alito, a request which Roberts ignored.

Alito vehemently defended himself in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, saying “I marvel at all the nonsense that has been written about me in the last year." And he claimed that the Senate Judiciary committee's proposed Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency act was moot, because "No provision in the Constitution gives them the authority to regulate the Supreme Court."

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan disagreed with Alito at a Judicial Conference in Portland, stating "It just can’t be that the court is the only institution that somehow is not subject to checks and balances from anybody else. We’re not imperial."

Kagan reminded an audience of lawyers and judges attending the conference that Congress has historically made decisions about the Supreme Court, including changes to its structure and composition. Certainly, an ethics committee would be within their authority. But Kagan confirmed that members of the Court don't agree on the proposal, as suggested by Chief Justice Roberts's refusal to act on it.

The structure of the court is routinely criticized by law experts in the midst of destructive decisions by its conservative majority. In June, Harvard Law School professor Mark Tushnet and political scientist Aaron Belkin called for improvements to the structure of the Court in an open letter to the Biden Administration. They proposed "Popular Constitutionalism" — enabling the president to offer an alternative to the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution — as a method of regulating the authority exercised by the Court. They asserted that it is not a "silver bullet against MAGA justices," but rather an idea that would require support from Congress and the public.

Kagan said that she believed the Court needs to act with restraint, and with the sense that "you are not the king of the world and you do not get to make policy judgments for the American people."

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