It’s been a long month of scrutiny for justices on the nation’s highest court. First, ProPublica released a damning investigation into Clarence Thomas’s longtime relationship with Harlan Crow — a billionaire who’s treated Thomas to expensive gifts and luxury vacations for over 20 years — that raised serious ethical questions about the justice’s failure to disclose the benefactions. Thomas defended himself by stating that Crow didn’t have “business before the Court,” an argument that fell apart, at least in the public eye, after Bloomberg and HuffPost reported that groups connected to the billionaire have submitted a series of briefs to the Supreme Court that were relevant to Crow’s financial interests.
Thomas isn’t the only justice to get heat for breaching ethical principles: This week, Politico revealed that Neil Gorsuch sold a co-owned property to Brian Duffy, the head of a law firm that frequently appears before the court, without disclosing Duffy’s name. Duffy’s firm has been involved with numerous Supreme Court cases since the sale, and Gorsuch has since sided with the firm in 8 of 12 rulings in which his opinion is recorded.
None of this, however, is new. Academic institutions and religious leaders have lavished justices with trips and gifts; the late Justice Antonin Scalia reportedly once accepted a duck hunting trip from Dick Cheney while the then-vice president had business before the court and subsequently refused to recuse himself from the case. But the fervor over Thomas’s nondisclosures has renewed calls for the Supreme Court to adopt a stricter code of conduct, as well as for lawmakers to expand the court, an action that hasn’t been taken in more than a century.
As The Trace’s Chip Brownlee reported this week, gun violence prevention groups and advocates have signed on to the reform effort, and launched a campaign pushing for lawmakers to expand the court, impose term limits, and establish a binding code of ethics for justices. There’s movement in the Senate, too: Roll Call reported that Republican Lisa Murkowski and independent Angus King announced bipartisan legislation that would require the court to adopt an ethics code within a year.
All nine Supreme Court justices — who have received lifetime appointments — this week said, essentially, that they were just fine on their own. In a statement attached to a letter from Chief Justice John Roberts, in which he declined to testify before Congress about the court’s ethical standards, the justices responded to the recent criticism they’ve faced by repeating the court’s current ethical standards.
Changing the Supreme Court remains an uphill battle, thanks in no small part to Republican resistance, but it’s not unprecedented. As historian David Gans told Salon in January, Congress’s enforcement of reforms during Reconstruction may guide current efforts for accountability. Either way, lawmakers’ success or failure to alter the court will have far-reaching consequences for voting access, reproductive rights, the climate, and, not least, gun safety. The Bruen decision wreaked havoc on the country’s firearm laws, and challenges circulating in lower courts over the ruling are likely to make their way back to the justices.
“Court reform is about more than the composition of the Supreme Court,” Gans said. “It’s about whether the Supreme Court is acting as an impartial arbiter to realize the Constitution’s promise of equal justice under law, to safeguard bedrock rights and to ensure that our courts work for all Americans.”
From Our Team
Gun Reform Groups Want to Expand the Supreme Court: More than a dozen gun violence prevention groups and advocates have signed on to the effort to reform the court.
Lawmakers Push for Guns to be Regulated Like Other Products: Policymakers are calling for the country’s product safety agency to be given the power to oversee firearms.
Hospital Expansion Planned in Queens ‘Trauma Desert’ Where Gunshot Victims Fare Worse: Shooting victims in the borough are more likely to die than anywhere else in the city.
New York Bill Seeks to Make Lockdown Drills Less Traumatic for Students: Lawmakers and parent activists say that requiring four drills per year is excessive.
What to Know This Week
About a quarter of Black and Latino young people who spent time in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center were shot or killed in the years following their release, according to a long-term Northwestern University study. [Chicago Sun-Times]
Myles Cosgrove, the Louisville Metro Police officer who shot and killed Breonna Taylor in March 2020, has been hired by the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office in Kentucky after being fired from the Louisville department in 2021. [CBS News]
The White House’s point person on gun policy, Susan Rice, is stepping down from her role as the head of the Domestic Policy Council. [Reuters] Context: Rice oversaw a 12-person team that focused on gun violence policy. The White House has pointed to her role when pushing back against calls for an Office of Gun Violence Prevention.
A federal grand jury indicted the man acquitted in the 2021 killing of Baltimore anti-violence worker Dante Barksdale, leader of the city’s Safe Streets program, after police arrested him earlier this month for possession of a ghost gun equipped to function as a fully automatic weapon. [The Baltimore Banner]
Philadelphia’s anti-violence grant program infused millions into 31 community organizations to curb record levels of gun violence without involving law enforcement. But the city’s politicized selection process sent the cash to some nascent nonprofits that weren’t prepared to handle the money — or deliver on their proposals. [The Philadelphia Inquirer]
A maintenance man in North Carolina. A teenager in Georgia. A cheerleader in Texas. Each mistakenly went to the wrong place or door, and each was shot. [The New York Times]
Washington’s new ban on some semiautomatic rifles is already being challenged in court: Gun rights groups filed a federal suit Tuesday, the same day Governor Jay Inslee signed the measure into law and the prohibition on sales of the weapons took effect. [Associated Press]
U.S. Senator Rick Scott introduced the School Guardian Act, legislation that would create an $80 million grant program to employ one or more full-time armed security guards in each of the country’s more than 128,000 schools. [USA TODAY] Context: It’s true that armed officers could potentially stop an attack when one happens. But the presence of security hasn’t definitively deterred attacks in the first place.
Agya K. Aning and Chip Brownlee contributed to this section.
Devon Hoover, 53, was the kind of doctor you’d look forward to seeing: His primary concern was “always with the person in front of him … and putting them at ease,” Maureen McKinley Light, one of his patients, told the Detroit Free Press. Hoover was found dead from a bullet wound in his Detroit home last weekend. He was a brilliant neurosurgeon, Hoover’s friend Paddy Lynch said, who was “beyond generous with his time.” In a Facebook group, “Justice for Dr. Devon Hoover,” one former patient remembered that generosity: Hoover went out of his way to bring her a Diet Coke, the one thing she wanted after surgery, and poured it over ice for her — a small gesture that showed “how wonderful he was,” she wrote.
Outside of work, Hoover enjoyed the finer things in life; he was an “unrivaled collector and caretaker of all things beautiful,” Lynch said, “and a champion of art and culture.”
“Every single person he’s ever encountered, he was just a kind, compassionate person,” McKinley Light said. “I bet you could never find a person who could say a single bad thing about him.”
Louisiana Shields Police With ‘Unheard Of’ Protections, Lets Abusive Officers Keep Their Jobs: “The law enforcement community often refers to the rule by a two-word designation: absolute nullity. Among the officers who benefited from it: a Shreveport officer accused of raping a woman at police headquarters; a Baton Rouge officer who shot at a fleeing motorist and was fired for dishonesty; a Eunice officer disciplined for choking and tackling a motorist; and a Hammond officer who took part in a beating that a policing expert hired by the city said was one of the ‘most abusive uses of force’ he ever reviewed.” [NOLA.com]
“When are they going to learn? I know people have a right to protect their dwellings. But take a minute. Because that’s somebody else’s child you’re going to take out.”
— Lisa Johnson-Banks, mother of shooting victim Omarian Banks, who was killed in Atlanta after he mistakenly knocked on the wrong door, to The New York Times