Chief Justice Responds to Senate Committee Ahead of Hearing on Supreme Court Ethics

May 2, 2023

Chief Justice John Roberts sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee ahead of its Tuesday hearing on Supreme Court ethics rules.

Roberts’ letter, sent late Monday afternoon, doubles down on his assertion that the highest court in the U.S. needs no ethics reforms, pointing to a Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices that had been signed by all nine Justices last week when Roberts “respectfully decline[d]” an invitation from Judiciary Chair Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) to testify at Tuesday’s hearing.

The U.S. Supreme Court is virtually the only court in the country without a formal code of ethics.

However, Roberts’ Monday letter also contends that the Supreme Court had adopted a statement on ethics 30 years ago, in 1993. This would mean that only Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had signed onto a statement of ethics before last week.

Yet reports of Thomas’ failure to publicly disclose high-priced vacations and business transactions from a billionaire political donor were what sparked Durbin to schedule the Senate Judiciary hearing in the first place.

Since then, it’s also come to light that Justice  Neil Gorsuch had failed to identify the name of a person who’s  had business before the Supreme Court with whom he’d done a more than quarter-million-dollar business transaction. 

Further, three days after Roberts declined Durbin’s invitation, reporting revealed that a whistleblower from his wife’s law firm had signed an affidavit in December stating that Jane Roberts has made millions in commissions from elite law firms, and Roberts did not recuse when at least one of those firms had at least one case before the Supreme Court.

In his Monday letter Roberts told the Judiciary Committee that “Justices consult a wide variety of guidance on ethics issues, including statutes, judicial opinions, advice from Judicial Conference Committees and the Court’s Legal Office, scholarly commentary, and historical practice, among other sources.”

On Monday, Durbin said in an interview that several different versions of a Supreme Court code of ethics were already “on the table” in the Senate, including at least one bipartisan proposal co-authored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

Durbin also reacted to Roberts’ refusal to testify, saying, “Ninety-two Justices of the Supreme Court had testified before congressional committees since 1960. It’s not unprecedented, but he declined. I’m disappointed that he did, but he declined.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing gets underway at 10am ET Tuesday. It can be viewed live.

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