“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 said in a letter to Durbin on Tuesday.
In response to allegations regarding Justice Clarence Thomas’ tight relationships with rich Republican donors, Durbin had requested Roberts or “another justice whom you designate” to testify before the committee on May 2.
Durbin said in a letter to Roberts last week: “There has been a steady stream of revelations regarding justices falling short of the ethical standards expected of other federal judges and, indeed, of public servants generally.” “The court has ignored them for decades, which has exacerbated the public trust issue.The current situation is untenable.
It “could strengthen faith in our public institutions,” according to Durbin, and “help restore confidence in the court’s ethical standards.”
Only two past examples of justices appearing before Congress on subjects unrelated to budgets or nominations, according to Roberts, citing the Supreme Court Library: Chief Justice William Howard Taft in 1921 and Chief Justice Charles Hughes in 1935. Roberts said that Chief Justice William Rehnquist twice spoke before House committees, “also on ordinary topics.”
Roberts included a three-page Statement of Ethics Principles and Practices in his reply, “to which all of the current Members of the Supreme Court subscribe.”
Following investigations into Thomas and his interactions with real estate mogul and Republican fundraiser Harlan Crow, Roberts’ testimony was requested. According to ProPublica, Thomas took lavish vacations and excursions from Crow, and Crow bought three residences that belonged to the judge and his family.
The travel and the land sale were not disclosed by Thomas on his financial disclosure forms. Early on in his Supreme Court term, Thomas said in a statement, he sought advice from his peers and other members of the judiciary and was “advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the court, was not reportable.”
The committee will still host a hearing on Supreme Court ethics changes next month, according to a statement released by Durbin on Tuesday.
In an effort to include the Court in this conversation, the statement continued, “I extended an invitation to the Chief Justice, or his designate.” But make no mistake, whether or not the Court participates in the process, Supreme Court ethics reform must take place.
Justices of the Supreme Court have testified before Congress in at least 92 hearings since 1960, according to Durbin, citing the Congressional Research Service, “addressing such issues as the constitutional role of judges, judicial security, annual appropriations for the courts, and judicial compensation.”