May 24, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Efforts to censure Alito gain traction in Congress

Rep. Steve Cohen, wearing a gray suit and a pro-Ukraine pin, at a committee hearing.

Rep. Steve Cohen. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images.

A resolution to censure Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito over reports of flags with connections to the Jan. 6 riot flying at his properties is picking up support from House Democrats.

Why it matters: The measure is unlikely to get a vote in the Republican-controlled chamber, but lawmakers who have signed on say it's a way to send a message of disapproval across branches of government.

The latest: A censure resolution introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) on Tuesday has picked up a dozen Democratic co-sponsors, including four on Thursday.

  • The five-page measure accuses Alito of violating Supreme Court recusal and ethics standards and "calling the impartiality of the Supreme Court ... into question by continuing to participate in cases in which his prior public conduct could be reasonably interpreted to demonstrate bias."
  • A Supreme Court spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

What's happening: Alito has faced bipartisan criticism over a New York Times report that an inverted flag, a symbol of the "Stop the Steal" movement, flew outside his Virginia home in the weeks after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.

  • Alito said he had "no involvement whatsoever in the flying of the flag" and that it was "briefly placed" by his wife in response to a neighbor's "objectionable and personally insulting language on yard signs."
  • A second New York Times report revealed that an "Appeal to Heaven" flag, a revolutionary war symbol adopted by right-wing groups and Jan. 6 rioters, flew at his New Jersey vacation home last year.

State of play: A growing number of Democrats are demanding Alito recuse himself from a pair of cases before the court related to Jan. 6.

  • On Thursday, after news of the second flag broke, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) joined the chorus.
  • Jeffries said Alito "definitively needs to recuse himself from any matter ... that has to do with the Jan. 6 violent insurrection."

What they're saying: Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), who joined Cohen's resolution Thursday, said it is "not something I would normally sign onto" as a lawyer who believes judges should police themselves, but the flag controversy "is really egregious."

  • "We have to say something," he told Axios in an interview.
  • "When a Supreme Court Justice ... fails to meet even the most basic ethical standards, it is a grave concern and demands our quick attention and accountability," said Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-Ill.), another co-sponsor.
  • Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) told Axios: "The code of conduct for US judges is clear: An appearance of impropriety occurs when reasonable minds ... would conclude that a judge's impartiality is impaired."

Reality check: The measure is all but certain not to get a vote in the Republican-controlled House.

  • Unlike measures to censure members of Congress, it cannot be forced to a vote.
  • Impeachment is also likely out of the question, said Peters, adding, "I don't think that's going to happen … I'm good enough at math to know that's not likely."

Yes, but: Democrats are using the controversy to try to breathe new life into their stalled efforts to pass ethics legislation for Supreme Court justices – even after the court adopted its own code of ethics.

  • "Justice Roberts must do the hard work of leading and restore some faith in the Court. He has been silent too long about the ethics crisis," said Balint.
Go deeper