WASHINGTON (CN) — Chief Justice John Roberts declined on Tuesday to testify before Congress over ethical concerns relating to Supreme Court justices in the wake of reporting on potential violations of disclosure requirements.
“Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee by the Chief Justice of the United States is exceedingly rare, as one might expect in light of separation of powers concerns and the importance of preserving judicial independence,” Roberts wrote in a letter Tuesday to Senator Dick Durbin, the committee’s chair.
Roberts said he must respectfully decline Durbin’s invitation to testify, which came last week after reports of potential ethical violations by Justice Clarence Thomas. Roberts noted that outside of appropriations or nominations, there were only two instances where chief justices testified before Congress — Chief Justice William Howard Taft in 1921 and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes in 1935.
Instead of testifying about ethical concerns at the court, Roberts provided Durbin with a statement of "ethics principles and practices" to which all members of the high court subscribe. But unlike other members of the judiciary, the justices are not bound by ethics guidelines.
Renewed discussions around the justices' adherence to ethical standards were sparked by ProPublica's reporting on Thomas’ connections to a Republican megadonor Harlan Crow. Thomas is accused of violating disclosure law — which, as opposed to ethics guidelines, does bind the justices — by failing to report hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of luxury trips gifted by Crow. Additional reporting revealed Thomas also failed to report a six-figure property sale to Crow.
Thomas responded that he has aimed to follow disclosure guidelines throughout his tenure. He said he had consulted his fellow justices concerning his connections to Crow and was told he did not have to report the luxury trips.
Ethics experts say it's possible, however, Thomas violated the law by failing to disclose these gifts and the real estate sale.
Outcry from the reporting led Durbin to ask Roberts and another justice to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 2. Durbin noted that Roberts has not addressed ethical issues on the court since a year-end report in 2011.
“Since then, there has been a steady stream of revelations regarding Justices falling short of ethical standards expected of other federal judges and, indeed, of public servants generally,” Durbin wrote. “These problems were already apparent back in 2011, and the Court’s decade-long failure to address them has contributed to a crisis of public confidence. The status quo is no longer tenable.”
The Judiciary Committee is currently down a key vote as 89-year-old California Senator Dianne Feinstein has been absent since a shingles diagnosis in February. Feinstein asked the committee to temporarily replace her so as not to hamper its work confirming judges and asserting subpoena power, but Republicans spurned the move.Follow @KelseyReichmann
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