Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts told Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D) on Tuesday that he will not testify before the committee.
What is the background?
After ProPublica raised new allegations of impropriety against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Durbin wrote Roberts requesting he come to a committee hearing on Supreme Court ethics reform.
The letter claimed there is a "crisis of public confidence" in the judiciary and warned the "status quo is no longer tenable."
"The time has come for a new public conversation on ways to restore confidence in the Court’s ethical standards," Durbin wrote.
How did Roberts respond?
The chief justice told Durbin in a letter on Tuesday that he will not attend the hearing to honor the Constitution's separation of powers.
"I must respectfully decline your invitation," Roberts said. "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 explained that Library of Congress records show that Supreme Court justices have only testified before Congress for reasons other than nominations or appropriations on two occasions, Chief Justice Howard Taft in 1921 and Chief Justice Charles Hughes in 1935. He also explained that his predecessor, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, testified before House committees on two occasions.
Additionally, Roberts noted that "congressional testimony from the head of the Executive Branch is likewise infrequent."
"According to the United States Senate website, no President has ever testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and only three Presidents (in 1862, 1919, and 1974) have testified before any Congressional committee," Roberts wrote.
How did Durbin respond?
Durbin released a statement indicating his displeasure with Roberts, regurgitating suggestions that Thomas is guilty of impropriety and his alleged ethical violations are yet another impetus for reform.
I am surprised that the Chief Justice’s recounting of existing legal standards of ethics suggests current law is adequate and ignores the obvious. 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.
"But make no mistake: Supreme Court ethics reform must happen whether the Court participates in the process or not," Durbin said. "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."
To be clear, there is no clear evidence that Thomas has committed any ethical or legal wrongdoing. Additionally, there is an ethical code that Supreme Court justices follow. Roberts included a copy of that code in his response to Durbin.
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