Oversight Democrats Rebuke Republicans for Refusing to Address the Crisis of Ethics at the Supreme Court
Washington, D.C. (September 14, 2023)—Rep. Jamie Raskin, Ranking Member of the Committee on Oversight and Accountability, led Democrats in rebuking Committee Republicans for ignoring the growing allegations of ethical failures and conflicts of interest at the Supreme Court and instead defending deep-pocketed corporations over American families seeking access to justice.
“The highest court in our land has the lowest ethical standards. This is the crisis that Congress should be discussing today. But our colleagues have instead called a hearing to assert that it’s just too easy to haul big corporations into court when they violate other Americans’ rights to health, safety, property, and environmental quality. The third-party litigation funding under attack today is the only way that a lot of victims of corporate misconduct and negligence can even get into court,” said Ranking Member Raskin in his opening statement.
The hearing included testimony from Kathleen Clark, Professor of Law, Washington University in St. Louis School of Law; Maya Steinitz, Professor of Law, Boston University School of Law; Erik Milito, President, National Ocean Industries Association; Julie Lucas, Executive Director, MiningMinnesota; and Aviva Wein, Assistant General Counsel, Johnson & Johnson.
Committee Democrats detailed how wealthy Republican donors have exploited the lack of enforceable ethics rules at the Supreme Court to buy access and influence.
- In response to a question from Rep. Shontel Brown regarding the influence special interests wield over the Supreme Court, Professor Clark explained: “The revelations over the last six months from journalists indicate that some members of the Supreme Court have accepted—repeatedly—rather lavish gifts from very wealthy patrons and this practice of—one might say—fraternizing with this group, including, at least a few cases, people who have matters before the Court or whose interests could be affected by Court decisions—this phenomenon absolutely undermines public trust in the Supreme Court.”
- Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton explained that: “Sadly, the reality is that some of the wealthiest people of the country have apparently bought an audience with some of our Supreme Court Justices. Justices Thomas and Alito have accepted extravagant gifts and have benefited from favors and donations worth millions of dollars. They have attended lavish vacations, flown on private jets, and received expensive gifts from billionaires, all while failing to disclose any of it to the American people. This, in part, is enabled by the Supreme Court refusal to abide by a binding code of ethics.”
- Rep. Robert Garcia stated: “In 2019, Justice Thomas flew on Harlan Crow’s private jet and enjoyed nine days of island hopping in Indonesia on Crow’s 160-foot yacht … It came with servants and private chefs. If Justice Thomas had actually chartered that yacht himself, it would have cost him half a million dollars.” Regarding the gifts received by Justice Thomas, Rep. Garcia continued: “The list, of course, goes on and on and on. And if this isn’t corruption, I don’t know what is.”
Committee Democrats underscored how right-wing special interests continue to bank roll litigation before MAGA judges to advance an extremist agenda.
- Rep. Melanie Stansbury explained: “It is truly a moral, and I believe, constitutional crisis in our legal system, as we are seeing a Supreme Court and justices who are taking lavish vacations and kickbacks from wealthy donors, hearing cases that are funded directly and indirectly by right wing donors and organizations, and in the process systematically gutting the American judicial system and undermining our fundamental rights, rights like—the right to control our bodies, to be safe in our communities, and rights to lead free and healthy lives in our communities. So, as they say, let’s follow the money.”
- Rep. Summer Lee noted: “I find it very telling that my Republican colleagues only want to discuss [judicial ethics] when corporate CEOs are the so-called victims, not when dark money funded and fueled the overturning of Roe or the rollback of LGBTQI+ protections or the reverse of student loan relief and the end of race conscious college admissions, not when it was revealed that two of our most right wing Supreme Court Justices, Alito and Thomas, had been bought and paid for by billionaires like Harlan Crow … and not when these same dark money megadonors pushed radical, often unqualified judges onto the federal bench, further eroding the legitimacy of our court system.”
- Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticized Republicans for their hypocrisy in scrutinizing third-party litigation funding and not in the crisis of judicial ethics. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez highlighted why the crisis of ethics at the Supreme Court matters to all Americans: “Because women have lost the right to choose, because indigenous people have lost rights, because minorities have lost rights, because working people across the country have lost rights due to this level of corruption and if we’re going to talk about third parties, let’s talk about the Federalist Society, which [has] not only had deep ties to Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife Ginni, but as also helped choose judicial nominees for the Republican Party and directed multi-million dollar media campaigns to confirm them.”
Committee Democrats explained how third-party litigation funding increases access to justice and helps ensure corporate actors don’t escape accountability for harms they cause to individuals, communities, and the environment.
- Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost denounced Republicans for giving large corporations, like Johnson & Johnson, a platform despite the company’s role in selling harmful products and taking no responsibility for their actions: “By holding this hearing, Republicans on this committee have shown they care more about putting profits over people, that they care more about perpetrating a myth that people in communities around the country who’ve been exposed to toxic chemicals, sold contaminated baby powder and flooded with opioids in their communities are demanding too much by demanding justice.”
- Rep. Member Jamie Raskin explained the benefits of third-party litigation funding, noting: “Victims bringing these lawsuits, especially those who are low-income or unable to work because they are injured or sick, often could not afford to bring the lawsuits at all without financial help from other citizens. If their lawsuits have no merit, they will be thrown out, but if they have merit, then we should all be grateful they are working to make society safer by stopping and penalizing the wrongdoers before they commit more wrongs against society. Many landmark cases establishing the basic rights of Americans were funded by contributions from outside groups. Cases like Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia, which struck down Jim Crow anti-miscegenation laws and upheld the right to marry who you want, and U.S. v. Windsor, which upheld the rights of same-sex marriage. The corporate interests represented on the panel today who are attacking this basic right are here for an obvious reason. They don’t like paying damages when their victims prove their rights have been violated in court.”
- Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi reminded the Johnson & Johnson witness that Committee Democrats previously released evidence that their talc powder caused cancer. Rep. Krishnamoorthi stated: “A proposal for $8.9 billion settling over 60,000 claimants’ allegations has been put forward. Now it’s your position of course that the claims of these 19,000 lawsuits and more are specious and lack scientific merit. But your claims that somehow your product, Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder, is somehow life-enhancing and that these claims are specious and lack merit are themselves specious, and you should think very carefully about casting all of these lawsuits as being somehow wholly lacking merit in themselves.”