Senate Judiciary promises SCOTUS ethics reform with or without Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts has declined an invitation from the Senate Judiciary Committee to attend a hearing on Supreme Court ethics scheduled for next month.

Roberts and his fellow justices have faced heavy scrutiny in recent weeks following a report from ProPublica that detailed several trips Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia, took at the expense of Republican donor Harlan Crow. The trips, which took place over a span of two decades, were not disclosed on Thomas’ public financial filings.

Thomas has also faced several calls to recuse himself from cases related to the U.S. Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, after text messages revealed that his wife urged several White House staffers under then-President Donald Trump to help overturn the 2020 election.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, left, and Chief Justice John Roberts, right, pose for their official portrait in the East Conference Room of the Supreme Court building on October 7, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Roberts on Tuesday declined an invitation from the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify at a SCOTUS ethics hearing, which was scheduled in light of the controversy surrounding Thomas.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In light of the ProPublica report, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, sent a letter to Roberts on April 10 urging the chief justice to investigate the report and called for the high court to adopt a clear code of conduct.

Durbin and several other Democratic senators sent a follow-up letter on April 20, inviting Roberts to testify before a Senate Judiciary hearing regarding the Supreme Court’s ethical practices, which is scheduled for May 2.

Roberts responded to Durbin’s invitation on Tuesday, writing that he “must respectfully decline” the opportunity to testify.

“Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee by the Chief Justice of the United States is exceedingly rare, as one might expect in light of separations of powers concerns and the importance of preserving judicial independence,” Roberts wrote in the one-page letter.

Durbin released a statement in response to Roberts’ rejection, promising that the Judiciary Committee’s hearing “will proceed” with or without members of the court included in the discussion.

“I extended an invitation to the Chief Justice, or his designate, in an attempt to include the Court in this discussion,” read Durbin’s statement. “But make no mistake: Supreme Court ethics reform must happen whether the Court participates in the process or not.”

“I am surprised that the Chief Justice’s recounting of existing legal standards of ethics suggests current law is adequate and ignores the obvious,” Durbin continued. “The actions of one Justice, including trips on yachts and private jets, were not reported to the public. That same Justice failed to disclose the sale of properties he partly owned to a party with interests before the Supreme Court.

“It is time for Congress to accept its responsibility to establish an enforceable code of ethics for the Supreme Court, the only agency of our government without it.”

Along with his response, Roberts also attached a “Statement of Ethics Principles and Practices” along with his response, which “aims to provide new clarity to the bar and to the public on how the Justices address certain recurring issues, and also seeks to dispel some common misconceptions.” The chief justice noted that all current justices of the high court “subscribe” to the listed principles.

Ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, had previously said that he “would be surprised” if Roberts had accepted the invitation from Durbin, according to a report from The Hill.

“I didn’t say I think it’s inappropriate, I’m just saying I would be surprised if he agreed to come,” Graham reportedly told reporters following Durbin’s invitation. “And I would support his decision not to come if that’s what he wanted to do.”

As of Tuesday evening, Graham had not released a public statement about Roberts’ decision.

Newsweek has reached out to Graham’s communications team via email for comment.

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