Senate Judiciary Asks Chief Justice to Answer Ethics Questions  

April 20, 2023

The Chair of the Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday asked Chief Justice John Roberts to answer questions about Supreme Court ethics rules.

In a letter, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) invited the Chief Justice, or “another justice whom you designate,” to appear before the committee on May 2. 

The request comes after the non-profit news outlet ProPublica reported on failures by Justice Clarence Thomas to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts, including real estate and luxury vacations, from conservative political donor Harlan Crow.

Durbin said Thursday that the scope Roberts’ potential testimony could be limited to only the subjects of the ethics measures and potential reforms to them, and he would not be expected to answer questions from committee members about other matters.

“The time has come for a new public conversation on ways to restore confidence in the court’s ethical standards,” Durbin wrote. “I invite you to join it, and I look forward to your response.”

The Supreme Court is virtually the only court in the U.S. that does not adhere to a formal code of ethics.

However, Congress has in the past subjected the Supreme Court—and other, lower courts—to the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which mandates that public officials and their immediate families publicly disclose financial records and employment histories. It also sets restrictions on lobbying efforts for a period of time after an official leaves public office. 

Thomas said he has always sought to comply with disclosure guidelines and said that it is his “intent to follow” new guidance announced in March by the Judicial Conference, which sets policy for the federal judiciary.

Under the new guidelines, federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, must file financial disclosures identifying outside income, gifts and other information. While “personal hospitality” gifts are exempt from reporting requirements, the new rules clarified that “personal hospitality” of any individual must be extended for a “nonbusiness purpose” and does not include transportation “that substitutes for commercial transportation.”

Last week Thomas said he “was advised” that he did not have to disclose the luxury trips from Crow—at least one of which would have cost Thomas more than $500,000 had he paid for it himself.

Justices have appeared before Congress in the past—to discuss the Supreme Court’s budget requests. In 2019, Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan appeared before the House Appropriations Committee. Kagan told lawmakers at the time that Roberts was “studying the question of whether to have a code of judicial conduct that is applicable only to the United States Supreme Court.”

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