Chief Justice Roberts Declines to Testify Before Congress Over Ethics Concerns

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WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee in a letter released Tuesday evening that he was declining its invitation to testify about ethics rules for the Supreme Court.

In an accompanying statement on ethics practices, all nine justices, under mounting pressure for more stringent reporting requirements at the court, insisted that the existing rules around gifts, travel and other financial disclosures are sufficient.

The chief justice wrote that such appearances before the committee were “exceedingly rare, as one might expect in light of separation of powers concerns and the importance of preserving judicial independence.”

Last week, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and chairman of the committee, invited the chief justice to appear after revelations of unreported gifts, travel and real estate deals between Justice Clarence Thomas and Harlan Crow, a Texas billionaire and Republican donor.

In the letter, Chief Justice Roberts attached a “statement of ethics principles and practices” signed by the current justices and included an appendix of the relevant laws that apply to judicial disclosures.

In the ethics statement, the justices wrote that they aimed to clarify how they “address certain recurring issues” and “to dispel some common misconceptions.” To deal with ethical questions, they look to “judicial opinions, treatises, scholarly articles, disciplinary decisions, and the historical practice of the court and the federal judiciary,” their signed statement said, which added that they could seek advice from colleagues and the court’s legal office.

The justices also said they may be limited in what to disclose because of security concerns. In fact, financial disclosures are not filed immediately and must be submitted each year in May. (The court has asked for more funding for security because of threats, including an alleged assassination attempt that targeted Justice Brett Kavanaugh last summer.)

In a statement, Mr. Durbin said that the hearing would proceed regardless.

“I am surprised that the chief justice’s recounting of existing legal standards of ethics suggests current law is adequate and ignores the obvious,” Mr. Durbin wrote. “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.”

Advocates for greater transparency at the court said the statement did little to ease concerns about accountability.

“Roberts’s statement is nowhere near an appropriate response to the ethical failures of the current court,” Gabe Roth, the executive director of Fix the Court, which has called for stricter ethics rules for the Supreme Court, said in a statement.

This month, ProPublica revealed that Justice Thomas had joined Mr. Crow on luxury trips for nearly 20 years, including flights on his private jet to an exclusive all-male retreat in Northern California, a vacation aboard his superyacht in Indonesia and stays at Mr. Crow’s 105-acre lakeside resort in the Adirondack Mountains. None appeared on the financial disclosure forms Justice Thomas filed each year.

Justice Thomas also failed to report a real estate deal with Mr. Crow. In 2014, a real estate company linked to Mr. Crow bought the house where Justice Thomas’s mother lives in Savannah, Georgia, along with two vacant lots along the same street. Mr. Crow paid $133,363 to the justice and his family for the property, according to records filed at Chatham County courthouse dated Oct. 15, 2014. The justice’s mother, Leola Williams, still lives in the home now owned by Mr. Crow.

Politico reported on Tuesday that shortly after being appointed in 2017, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch sold property to the chief executive of a major law firm that often has business before the court and did not disclose the identity of the buyer. Experts said that while that was not a violation of the law, it underscored the need for reform.

Earlier this year, the American Bar Association urged the justices to adopt an ethics code and said that the absence of one imperils the legitimacy of the court.

In 2019, Justice Elena Kagan told a House committee that the chief justice was “studying the question of whether to have a code of judicial conduct that’s applicable only to the United States Supreme Court.”

In 2011, the chief justice wrote in his year-end report on the state of the federal judiciary that the justices consult a code of conduct and said there was no need for them to be constrained by the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, which applies to other federal judges.

“All members of the court do in fact consult the code of conduct in assessing their ethical obligations,” he wrote, adding: “Every justice seeks to follow high ethical standards, and the Judicial Conference’s code of conduct provides a current and uniform source of guidance designed with specific reference to the needs and obligations of the federal judiciary.”

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