by Katelynn Richardson
Democratic Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has raised concern about the employment of Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, though has introduced around two dozen bills touching on issues his wife works on as a consultant for Ocean Conservancy.
Whitehouse has criticized Justice Clarence Thomas for his wife’s consulting work for conservatives and communication with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, sending a letter last year requesting Chief Justice Roberts ensure Thomas recuse himself from cases relating to Jan. 6. Yet his wife Sandra Whitehouse has worked since 2008 as a consultant and senior policy advisor for Ocean Conservancy, while Whitehouse has introduced at least 24 ocean-related bills and co-founded the Senate Oceans Caucus in 2011.
Additionally, Whitehouse has blogged for Ocean Conservancy, spoke at an event it co-hosted, and sat on a panel an organization director moderated. The organization supported Whitehouse’s Save Our Seas Act 2.0 in 2020.
“Ocean Conservancy is grateful to Sens. Whitehouse, Sullivan, and Menendez for their continued leadership, and to Sen. Udall for his important contributions to improving the bill,” Jeff Watters, Vice President of External Affairs, wrote in a blog post.
Mark Paoletta, a Schaerr-Jaffe law firm partner, told the Daily Caller News Foundation that Congress does not have conflict of interest laws.
“It’s outrageous, but not surprising that Senator Whitehouse is attacking the originalist Justices on the Supreme Court on bogus ethics and conflicts of interest charges, when he is directly helping his wife’s organization and her organization is helping him,” he said. “Unlike the Executive branch and the judiciary, Congress is not subject to any conflict of interest law regarding their work. In fact, the Senate ethics manual explicitly permits Senators to work on matters that directly affect their financial interests and their spouses’ employers or clients.”
The Senate Ethics Manual states that “[n]either federal law nor Senate rules specifically preclude a Member’s spouse from engaging in any activity on the ground that it could create a conflict of interest with the Member’s official duties.”
The gaping hole in today’s response from Roberts to the Senate Judiciary Committee is that it overlooks the complete failure of process regarding ethics questions involving the justices.
When there’s no ref, there’s no rule, as a practical matter.
— Sheldon Whitehouse (@SenWhitehouse) April 26, 2023
Senate Judiciary Democrats like Whitehouse, while critical of conservative justices, have not directed the same level of criticism towards liberal justices who have taken similar actions. A note on Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s March 2022 nominee financial disclosure revealed that she “inadvertently omitted” consulting income her spouse “periodically receives from consulting on medical malpractice cases” on previous reports.
Despite being one of the most vocal critics of Justice Clarence Thomas’ friendship with billionaire real estate developer Harlan Crow, Whitehouse has also received campaign money from Crow’s brother, Trammell Crow, who also runs a green group the senator supports.
In February, Whitehouse reintroduced the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act, which would enforce stricter recusal rules on the justices.
In his letter declining Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin’s invitation to appear at a hearing on Supreme Court ethics, Chief Justice John Roberts explained how the Court makes recusal decisions.
“Lower courts can freely substitute one district or circuit judge for another,” he wrote on April 25. “The Supreme Court consists of nine Members who always sit together. Thus, Justices have a duty to sit that precludes withdrawal from a case as a matter of convenience or simply to avoid controversy.”
Roberts noted that there have been “approximately 200 recusals per year at the certiorari stage and a few at the merits stage as well” in recent times.
Paoletta pointed out that the low approval rating Democrats often use to show there is an ethics problem on the Court can just as easily be applied to Congress.
“The Democrats cite the Court’s approval rating of 45% as a reason the Court needs to adopt an ethics code,” he said. “But if you are using polling as basis, given Congress is at a 20% approval/75% disapproval, Congress should immediately enact major ethics and accountability measures, like a conflict of interest law.”
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Katelynn Richardson is a reporter at Daily Caller News Foundation.
Photo “Sheldon Whitehouse” by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.