Roberts refuses Senate request to testify on judicial ethics

WASHINGTON (AP) — Chief Justice John Roberts declined a request from the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify at a hearing next week on ethical standards at the court, instead providing the panel with a statement of ethics reaffirmed by the court’s nine justices.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., invited Roberts’ testimony last week, saying there had been a “steady stream of revelations” about Supreme Court justices “falling short of ethical standards expected of other federal judges”.

The invitation came after reports detailing a close relationship between Judge Clarence Thomas and a conservative Texas donor. The donor, Dallas billionaire Harlan Crow, had bought three properties owned by Thomas and his family in a deal worth more than $100,000 that Thomas never reported, according to the organization. investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica.

In a letter to Durbin on Tuesday, Roberts said he would “respectfully decline” the committee’s request.

“Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee by the Chief Justice of the United States is extremely rare, as one would expect given the concerns about the separation of powers and the importance of preserving judicial independence. .”

The letter to Durbin was accompanied by a “Statement on Ethical Principles and Practices” signed by the nine judges outlining the ethical rules they follow when it comes to travel, gifts and outside income. While the rules are not new, the statement says the undersigned justices “reaffirm and reaffirm today the fundamental ethical principles and practices to which they subscribe in carrying out their responsibilities as members of the Supreme Court of the United States.” United”.

The statement details standards for judges’ activities outside of court and outlines the process for recusal, which is generally up to each judge. It is not necessary for the court to say why they recuse themselves from a case.

Nothing in Roberts’ letter or in the statement attributed to the nine justices suggests that they feel reprimanded in any way by the recent reports. But this is the first time the current members have spoken out on ethical issues as a group.

Durbin said in a statement that he was surprised because the court’s response “suggests the current law is adequate and ignores the obvious.”

“A judge’s actions, including trips on yachts and private jets, were not brought to public notice,” Durbin said. “This same judge did not disclose the sale of properties he partly owned to a party with interests in the Supreme Court.”

Durbin said he would proceed with the hearing, which will “consider common sense proposals” to hold Supreme Court justices more accountable under ethical guidelines.

Gabe Roth, executive director of court transparency group Fix the Court, said the judges’ statements overhauled inadequate ethical standards.

“Make no mistake: Roberts’ statement is far from an appropriate response to the ethical failings of the current court,” Roth said in a statement.

ProPublica also revealed that Crow provided Thomas and his wife Ginni with hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual vacations and trips over several decades, including international cruises on his mega-yacht, private jet flights and vacations. at the Crow Invitational Resort in the Adirondacks. . But the 2014 real estate deal is the first public evidence of a direct financial transaction between the couple.

Ethics experts have expressed conflicting views on whether Thomas was required to disclose Crow-funded luxury travel. Thomas said in a statement that he had been told by colleagues that “this kind of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who had no business before the Court, was not to be reported. “.

Thomas did not name the other judges or members of the judiciary he had consulted.

Last month, the federal judiciary tightened disclosure requirements for all judges, including High Court judges, although overnight stays at personal holiday homes owned by friends remain exempt from disclosure.

The ethics statement sent to Durbin notes that the Judicial Conference Committee on Financial Disclosure had “provided clarification on the scope of the ‘personal hospitality’ exemption from the disclosure rules.”

Durbin’s original letter had asked Roberts or another judge to appear before the committee on May 2. He told Roberts that the scope of his testimony would be limited to the ethical rules governing Supreme Court justices and potential changes to those rules.

Roberts’ refusal to testify is the latest snag for Democrats on the court panel. With Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California out indefinitely, the committee has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans and can’t move some judges to the floor — or presumably subpoena Roberts, if Democrats wanted to.

By refusing to testify, Roberts ignored Durbin’s invitation to call another judge instead. The last time judges met with the Senate Judiciary Committee was in October 2011, when Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer testified.


Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

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