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Senate Democrat wants Chief Justice Roberts to testify in ethics probe

By Sarah May on
 April 21, 2023

In the wake of an investigative report alleging possible financial reporting violations on the part of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) has requested that Chief Justice John Roberts appear before the panel to provide testimony on the high court's ethical standards and practices, according to The Hill.

Sparked by a probe conducted by left-leaning public interest group ProPublica, Durbin has targeted May 2 for a hearing in which either Roberts – or a designated justice of his choice – would come before the committee to address the subject of ethics at the highest court in the land.

Durbin summons Roberts

In his letter to the chief justice, Durbin began, “Your last significant discussion of how Supreme Court Justices address ethical issues was presented in your 2011 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary.”

“Since then, 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,” Durbin continued.

The senator went on, “These problems were already apparent back in 2011, and the Court's decade-long failure to address them has contributed to a crisis of public confidence. 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. I invite you to join it,” Durbin added.

Limited-scope testimony

In his communication to Roberts, Durbin assured the chief justice that the scope of the testimony sought would be limited to the ethical rules governing members of the high court and possible reforms to those regulations.

The senator further pledged that Roberts would not be expected to respond to questions on any other matters and offered the chief justice the option of selecting one of his colleagues to appear before the committee in his stead.

Preemptively answering possible questions about the propriety of his request, Durbin's letter contended that “[t]here is ample precedent for sitting Justices of the Supreme Court to testify before Congress, including regarding ethics.”

As The Hill noted, however, should Roberts decline to voluntarily participate in the hearing, the continued absence of panel member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) would scuttle any hopes of issuing a subpoena for his attendance. “It takes a majority. I don't have a majority. There's been no discussion of subpoenas for anyone at this point,” Durbin said.

ProPublica report spurs questions

The investigative report that sparked heightened questions about ethics at the high court was published by ProPublica earlier this month, as The Hill noted separately, and it suggested that Thomas has improperly accepted luxury travel and accommodations from wealthy Republican donor and businessman Harland Crow for decades without making the proper disclosures.

The report alleged that Thomas indulged in a long string of lavish journeys on Crow's dime, many of which included private jet excursions, journeys on private yachts, and stays at posh resorts across the globe.

In response, Thomas explained that the Crows have been close family friends for decades and said that when he first began serving on the court, he sought guidance regarding disclosure rules, and was told that “personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable” and added that he will comply with all future adjustments to disclosure requirements as they become known.

Thomas found himself the subject of additional scrutiny in recent days when a Washington Post report questioned the justice's receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars in income from a real estate firm that was shut down back in 2006, though, as The Hill noted, the situation may have arisen due to an accounting error.

AOC calls for impeachment

It is not only Durbin who has sounded the alarm about ethics at the Supreme Court in the wake of the ProPublica report, as firebrand Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) recently went a step further by calling for Thomas to face impeachment over financial disclosure accusations.

Taking to Twitter recently to comment on the justice's alleged conduct, Ocasio-Cortez said, “This is beyond party or partisanship” and added, “[t]his degree of corruption is shocking.”

“Barring some dramatic change, this is what the Roberts court will be known for: rank corruption, erosion of democracy, and the stripping of human rights,” the congresswoman declared.

However, considering that a House ethics review earlier this year found that there was “substantial reason to believe” that she was guilty of accepting impermissible gifts in connection with her 2021 attendance at the Met Gala, critics might contend that Ocasio-Cortez is not the most credible source of indignation with regard to Thomas' purported actions.