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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.”