Chief Justice Roberts invited to testify on Supreme Court ethics reform following Justice Thomas scandal

April 25, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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Amid the fallout from the ethics scandal surrounding Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Sen. Dick Durbin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has invited Chief Justice John Roberts to testify on May 2 regarding ethics reform within the court. 

The invitation follows a series of revelations regarding Thomas’ failure to disclose luxurious trips funded by Republican billionaire donor Harlan Crow.

Durbin’s letter to Roberts emphasized the need to address the court’s ethical issues, which have contributed to a crisis of public confidence. Durbin called for a new public conversation to restore confidence in the court’s ethical standards.

“Your last significant discussion of how Supreme Court Justices address ethical issues was presented in your 2011 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary,” Durbin wrote. “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 wrote.

“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,” Durbin wrote. “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, and I look forward to your response.”

While there is no clear precedent for requesting a justice’s testimony on the ethical standards of their colleagues, the committee has limited options to compel Roberts to testify if he does not voluntarily agree. According to Judiciary Committee rules, a subpoena can only be issued if the chairman and ranking member jointly issue it or if a majority of the committee members vote in favor. Currently, there are 11 Democrats and 10 Republicans on the committee.

With Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s medical absence, only 10 Democrats are available to vote, and no GOP committee members have indicated they would cross party lines to subpoena Roberts or Thomas. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, warned that Durbin’s invitation “opens up Pandora’s box” and expressed support for Roberts if he chooses not to testify.

In response to the revelations about Thomas’ financial relationship with Crow, left-leaning group Common Cause has urged both the House and Senate judiciary committees to invite Thomas and Roberts to testify. However, the Republican-controlled House is unlikely to take action on the matter. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, when asked about his concerns regarding Thomas accepting undisclosed gifts from Crow, stated, “No, not at all. Not at all.”

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