Tuesday, May 23, 2023
Law Firm Tells Senate Judiciary They Can't Impose Supreme Court Ethics Code
Gibson Dunn, the firm that represents Harlan Crow, wrote to Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin that the Committee lacked authority to investigate Justice Thomas's relationship with Crow and to impose an ethics code on the Supreme Court.
That's some chutzpah.
The firm wrote that Crow wouldn't comply with the Committee's effort to investigate Crow's relationship with Justice Thomas. According to the firm, the Committee's investigation lacks a legitimate legislative purpose, because ultimately Congress cannot impose an ethics code on the Supreme Court--and therefore can't investigate in order to impose such a code. Again according to the firm, a congressional ethics code for the Court would impermissibly encroach on the singular constitutional role and standing of the Supreme Court.
The letter engages with the Necessary and Proper Clause--in particular, the argument that the Necessary and Proper Clause authorizes Congress to impose an ethics code on the Court. But it seems to engage only with the first part of the Clause. According to the letter, the Necessary and Proper Clause doesn't provide Congress with authority to impose an ethics code, because Congress doesn't have the underlying power to impose a code.
But even if that's right--and it's not at all clear that it is--it ignores the second part of the Clause: "The Congress shall have the power . . . [t]o make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof." (Emphasis added.)
The move seems to put the ball back in the Senate Judiciary Committee's court, to subpoena Crow and then move to enforce the subpoena in the courts. That comes with some risk, of course: the Court (which is both a highly interested player and umpire in this separation-of-powers dispute) seems likely to side with Crow, based on its signals.