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Fair Courts Update: A New Ethics Reform Bill for SCOTUS and State Court Challenges to Abortion Bans

Plus, how Republican donors plan to target state supreme court races.

Last Updated: April 15, 2022
Published: April 26, 2022

Demo­crats Intro­duce Supreme Court Ethics Reform Bill

On April 6, congres­sional Demo­crats intro­duced legis­la­tion in the House and Senate that would impose new ethics and recusal rules on the federal judi­ciary and the Supreme Court.

The bill would, among other things, require the Supreme Court to adopt a code of conduct within 180 days of enact­ment or be subject to the exist­ing code that applies to other federal judges. It would also codify new recusal stand­ards and require requests for a justice’s recusal to be reviewed by the full Court, a change from the current prac­tice of justices making indi­vidual decisions on recusal. Addi­tion­ally, the bill would extend exist­ing conflict-of-interest laws to all federal judges and employ­ees and require livestream­ing of appel­late and high court argu­ments.

While there have long been calls for Supreme Court ethics reform, those efforts have taken on increased import­ance follow­ing extens­ive report­ing about Justice Clar­ence Thomas’s fail­ure to recuse himself from cases implic­at­ing the polit­ical activ­it­ies of his wife, Ginni Thomas. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), chair of the House Judi­ciary Commit­tee and a spon­sor of the bill, said, “This essen­tial legis­la­tion directly responds to the cascade of judi­cial ethics scan­dals that threaten to under­mine the integ­rity of our federal courts.”

State Supreme Courts in Michigan, Idaho Will Rule on Abor­tion Bans

On April 7, Gov. Gretchen Whit­mer asked the Michigan Supreme Court to address the consti­tu­tion­al­ity of the state’s abor­tion ban and to enjoin 13 county prosec­utors located in counties with abor­tion clin­ics from enfor­cing the law should the U.S. Supreme Court over­turn Roe v. Wade. The next day, the Idaho Supreme Court voted to tempor­ar­ily block the state’s new six-week abor­tion ban.

The Michigan lawsuit argues that the state’s abor­tion ban, which was passed in 1931 and is not currently in effect because of Roe, viol­ates the rights to due process, privacy, and bodily integ­rity set out in the state’s consti­tu­tion. Seven of the defend­ants issued a state­ment in support of the lawsuit, accord­ing to the Detroit News.

The Idaho law, which was set to take effect on April 22, would allow the relat­ives of what the bill calls a “preb­orn child” to sue doctors who perform an abor­tion for a minimum of $20,000 in damages. When Gov. Brad Little signed the bill into law last month, he expressed concerns that its civil enforce­ment provi­sion was “uncon­sti­tu­tional and unwise.”

The U.S. Supreme Court could over­turn Roe this term — such a ruling would cause abor­tion bans in 22 states to go into effect.

Repub­lican Donors Plan to Target State Supreme Court Races in 2022

Follow­ing decisions block­ing Repub­lican-drawn elect­oral maps in North Caro­lina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, Repub­lican-aligned groups are plan­ning to spend record amounts of money on state high court races during the 2022 elec­tion cycle.

Eighty-seven of the three hundred forty-four total state supreme court seats will be up for elec­tion in 32 states in 2022. Spend­ing in these races has skyrock­eted in recent years, with spend­ing by big donors and interest groups during the 2019–20 cycle hitting a record-break­ing $97 million.

The Repub­lican State Lead­er­ship Commit­tee’s Judi­cial Fair­ness Initi­at­ive, which accord­ing to Busi­ness Insider has spent over $20 million on state court races within the past decade, announced that they are “commit­ting to spend­ing more on state court races this year than any year prior.” And on April 11, the Ohio Cham­ber of Commerce also announced its plans to spend $4 million support­ing Repub­lican judi­cial candid­ates in the state alone.

This increased spend­ing occurs as state supreme courts are expec­ted to rule on nation­ally import­ant issues, includ­ing voting rights, gun rights, and abor­tion. Adam Kincaid, the pres­id­ent of the National Repub­lican Redis­trict­ing Trust, said “these races are going to be the next big polit­ical fron­tier out there.”