Durbin invites Chief Justice Roberts to testify about Supreme Court ethics

ByAllison Pecorin ABCNews logo
Thursday, April 20, 2023

Sen. Dick Durbin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Thursday invited Chief Justice John Roberts to testify at a hearing about Supreme Court ethics.

Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, sent a letter to Roberts inviting him or "another Justice whom you designate" to appear before the committee on May 2 for a hearing "regarding the ethical rules that govern the Justices of the Supreme Court and potential reforms to those rules."

The invitation comes after ProPublica reports revealing close ties between Justice Clarence Thomas and wealthy GOP donor Harlan Crow, including real estate Thomas and his family sold to Crow and extensive travel by Thomas that Crow facilitated or paid for. Those ties were not revealed on Thomas' disclosure reports.

In his letter, Durbin, D-Ill., noted that the last time the Judiciary Committee heard from sitting justices on ethics was in 2011.

"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. 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," Durbin wrote.

Durbin told reporters he gave the court prior notice that the letter was coming and that he expected Roberts to receive it Thursday afternoon.

The panel would have limited recourse to compel Roberts to testify if he refuses. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein's continued absence as she recovers from shingles means the panel is deadlocked between Democrats and Republicans, rather than Democrats' normal one-seat majority, and only a majority of members could vote to approve a subpoena for Roberts' testimony.

It's unclear if any Republicans would back such a move.

Roberts had yet to respond as of early Thursday afternoon.

Democrats have been up in arms following the ProPublica reports.

"This is beyond party or partisanship," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted earlier this month. "This degree of corruption is shocking -- almost cartoonish. Thomas must be impeached."

Republicans, meanwhile, have largely fallen in line behind Thomas.

"I have total confidence in the chief justice of the United States to deal with these court internal issues," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said this week, suggesting any ethics reforms should be left to the Supreme Court to determine.

Crow, meanwhile, has repeatedly maintained his relationship with Thomas included no wrongdoing and that he never tried to influence Thomas' work on the court.

"We have never asked about a pending or lower court case, and Justice Thomas has never discussed one, and we have never sought to influence Justice Thomas on any legal or political issue. More generally, I am unaware of any of our friends ever lobbying or seeking to influence Justice Thomas on any case, and I would never invite anyone who I believe had any intention of doing that," Crow said in a statement after the first ProPublica report was published.

In a statement last Friday, Thomas said, "Harlan and Kathy Crow are among our dearest friends, and we have been friends for over twenty-five years. As friends do, we have joined them on a number of family trips during the more than quarter century we have known them. Early in my tenure at the Court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in 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. I have endeavored to follow that counsel throughout my tenure, and have always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines. These guidelines are now being changed, as the committee of the Judicial Conference responsible for financial disclosure for the entire federal judiciary just this past month announced new guidance. And, it is, of course, my intent to follow this guidance in the future."

ABC News' Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.

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