Democrats eye funding cuts as leverage against Supreme Court

Democrats eye funding cuts as leverage against Supreme Court

Senate Democrats have identified the next pressure point to use in their attempt to regulate Supreme Court ethics: The power of the purse.

Some Democrats want to add language to the annual appropriations bill, which allocates the funding of the Supreme Court, to direct its justices to adopt more stringent, transparent ethics rules, as well as procedures for enforcing those rules.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the chairman of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees the court’s budget, says he is looking “at all the options.”

Democrats who favor using the court’s funding as leverage in the brewing ethics battle say they’re well within their rights to use the annual appropriations bills to compel action by the justices.

“There are court decisions that say very clearly that, in interbranch disputes, it is completely appropriate and proper for the legislative branch to use the power of the purse to influence the other branches in doing what they ought to be doing,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the chairman of the Federal Courts Judiciary Subcommittee.

Democratic senators aren’t happy that Chief Justice John Roberts rebuffed their invitation to testify about Supreme Court ethics reform at Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

They are also dismayed that Roberts hasn’t signaled any intention to review the court’s ethical procedures in light of ProPublica’s report last month that conservative Justice Clarence Thomas accepted luxury trips from Texas billionaire Harlan Crow without disclosing them, as required by law.

ProPublica also reported that Thomas sold a property in which he had a one-third interest to one of Crow’s companies without reporting it.

Even before those reports, a group of Senate Democrats wanted to add language to the annual appropriations bill that would require the court to adopt a public code of ethics.

Fifteen Senate Democrats, including Whitehouse, wrote a March 31 letter to Van Hollen’s Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee asking him to include language to the appropriations bill withholding $10 million in funding for the Supreme Court unless it adopted a public ethics code.

“Congress has broad authority to compel the Supreme Court to institute these reforms, which would join other requirements already legislatively mandated. And Congress’s appropriations power is one tool for achieving these changes,” they wrote.

The signatories included Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

The bombshell reports about Thomas taking vacations on Crow’s superyacht and flying frequently on the real estate magnate’s Bombardier Global 5000 jet have given Democrats fresh impetus to use funding as leverage to reform the court.

Roberts declined to testify before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, but Democrats think he might be more willing to appear before the Appropriations subcommittee if his budget is at stake.

“In the context of the chief justice’s refusal to testify, the justices don’t seem to mind coming over to testify when it’s their money,” Whitehouse said.

Senate Republicans expressed outrage Tuesday over the threat to the court’s full funding.

They argue that a $10 million cut could force justices to cut back on police protection at a time when they are facing personal threats in the wake of their controversial 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion rights case.

“Why $10 million? Let’s have a look at the Supreme Court’s 2024 budget request. What do we see? Well, we see $4 million for security funding from the Chips Act … then we see an additional $6 million of more security funding that the court is asking for,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a member of the Judiciary panel, said.

“In other words, the threat is, ‘We will deny you security unless you do what we want,’” Hawley said. “Extraordinary.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), another member of the Judiciary panel, called the attempt to use the budget to pressure the court “truly disgraceful.”

“You had 15 Democrats, including six Judiciary Committee Democrats, threaten to cut off funding for security for Supreme Court justices unless the justices give in to their demands. This is at a time when the justices are facing dramatically increased security threats,” he said.

“Just this weekend, Justice [Samuel] Alito did an interview with the Wall Street Journal where he pointed out that the politicization and overheated attack on the courts coming from the Democrats have put their lives at risk,” he said, referring to the conservative justice who penned the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the Constitutional right to an abortion.

Democratic senators insist that the personal security of the justices won’t be affected.

“In the subcommittee, we’re looking at all of our options to promote an ethics rule to be applied to the Supreme Court. I’ve been very clear that we’re not going to cut or restrict money for court security,” Van Hollen told The Hill.

Asked if he would invite Roberts to testify before his subcommittee, he said: “We’re looking at all our options.”

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