Chief Justice John Roberts has declined an invitation to testify before the Senate about the Supreme Court’s ethical standards, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Tuesday.
In a letter responding to Durbin, Roberts wrote “I must respectfully decline your invitation” and noted a sitting chief justice has testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on only two occasions in the past 102 years.
“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 wrote.
He noted that Chief Justice William Howard Taft and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes testified before the panel on “routine matters of judicial administration” related to judgeships in lower courts and jurisdiction over appeals from lower court injunctions in 1921 and 1935, respectively.
Roberts attached a “Statement of Ethics Principles and Practices,” to which he said all current members of the court subscribe.
The statement notes members of the Supreme Court in 1991 “voluntarily adopted a resolution” to follow the substance of the Judicial Conference’s code of conduct, which provides “broadly worded principles that inform ethical conduct and practices” for the federal judiciary.
Durbin and other Democrats on the committee invited Roberts to testify at a May 2 hearing on Supreme Court ethics reform.
He noted in a letter to Roberts last week that Supreme Court justices appeared before the Judiciary panel in October 2011 to discuss the court’s approach to ethics matters.
“The opportunity for the American people to hear from justices in this setting presents a moment that could strengthen faith in our public institutions,” Durbin wrote the April 20 letter.
“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,” he wrote.
Durbin offered that Roberts could designate another justice to attend the hearing in his place.
The Illinois Democrat scheduled the hearing in response to reports by ProPublica that conservative Justice Clarence Thomas accepted luxury travel, hospitality and other favors from Texas billionaire Harlan Crow over more than 20 years.
Democrats say that Thomas was required by law to publicly disclose the trips he took in Crow’s Bombardier Global 5000 private jet.
ProPublica also reported that Thomas failed to disclose the sale of a property in Savannah, Ga., in which he had a one-third interest, to one of Crow’s companies.
Durbin responded to those reports by sending a letter to Roberts earlier this month urging him to “immediately open” an investigation and “take all needed action to prevent further misconduct.”
He warned, “If the court does not resolve this issue on its own, the committee will consider legislation to resolve it.”
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee last week accused Democrats of trying to embarrass Thomas and urged Roberts to skip the hearing.
“I would not recommend that the chief accept his invitation because it will be a circus,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in response to Durbin’s invitation for Roberts to testify.