House Democrats Propose $50 Gift Limit for Supreme Court Justices

House Democrats Propose $50 Gift Limit for Supreme Court Justices
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) at a press conference on April 7, 2022. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Sam Dorman
Updated:
0:00

WASHINGTON—House Democrats are proposing a $50 limit for the value of gifts that Supreme Court justices are allowed to accept, as part of a broader effort to address what they call an ethics crisis on the nation’s highest court.

House Oversight Committee Ranking Democratic Member Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Vice Ranking Democratic Member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) discussed the idea during a Democratic roundtable on June 11.

“The highest court in the land today has the lowest ethical standards,” Mr. Raskin said. “And yet, they are the only jurists in the federal system who are traditionally given the honorific justice rather than judge.”

The roundtable event was titled “High Court, Low Standards, and Dark Money: Flagging a Supreme Ethics Crisis in America.” It featured remarks from committee members and guests, including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who criticized the conduct of some of the justices.
The Democratic leaders were using a figure in the House Ethics rule that prohibits gifts above a certain amount. The House Ethics Manual states that members “may accept a gift worth less than $50 ($49.99 or less before tax) from someone who is not a registered federal lobbyist, foreign agent, or entity that employs or retains a registered federal lobbyist or foreign agent, with some caveats.”

The hearing occurred after Justices Clarence Thomas and Ketanji Brown Jackson both revealed substantial gifts that they received while on the court. Justice Thomas said in his 2023 disclosure that he “inadvertently omitted” trips paid for by billionaire Harlan Crow on his report for 2019. He also said he received two photo albums worth about $2,000. Justice Jackson reported gifts of artwork for her chambers and tickets to a Beyonce concert.

The justices’ current code of conduct refers to the Judicial Conference Regulations on Gifts, which prohibits judicial officers from “[accepting] a gift from anyone who is seeking official action from or doing business with the court or other entity served by the judicial officer or employee, or from any other person whose interests may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the judicial officer’s or employee’s official duties.”

Separation of Powers

The Supreme Court issued its own code of ethics in November 2023 amid scrutiny from congressional Democrats, who claimed that the new code didn’t have an effective enforcement mechanism. Each of the nine justices signed onto the code while saying that it “largely represents a codification of principles that we have long regarded as governing our conduct.”

Democrats responded to an incident involving an upside-down American flag—which they viewed as a symbol of solidarity with protesters the day of the U.S. Capitol breach—by requesting Justice Samuel Alito’s recusal from two cases related to the events of Jan. 6, 2021. Justice Alito refused, denying any ethical issue.

Chief Justice John Roberts declined Senate Democrats’ request for an in-person meeting, citing concerns about the separation of powers.

The ongoing feud between congressional Democrats and Supreme Court justices has raised questions about how much Congress can require of the court, which is regarded as a co-equal branch of the federal government.

Justice Alito told The Wall Street Journal in comments published last year, “No provision in the Constitution gives [Congress] the authority to regulate the Supreme Court—period.”
Aside from the $50 gift limit proposal, House Democrats have introduced legislation to set up an independent ethics office for the Supreme Court.

During the June 11 roundtable, several members disputed the idea that the Constitution’s separation of powers precluded congressional reforms on the court’s activity.

“They are nine justices that wear robes, but they are not gods, nor are they priests,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said.

Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.
Sam Dorman is a Washington correspondent covering courts and politics for The Epoch Times. You can follow him on X at @EpochofDorman.
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