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Durbin asks Chief Justice John Roberts to testify about Supreme Court ethics rules

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin said he wants Roberts to testify May 2 about "a steady stream of revelations regarding Justices falling short" of ethical standards.
John Roberts attends the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol
Chief Justice John Roberts at the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 7.Jacquelyn Martin / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked Chief Justice John Roberts on Thursday to testify before Congress in early May about ethics rules for Supreme Court justices and potential reforms.

Durbin said in a letter that Roberts last addressed ethical issues at the high court in a 2011 report. Since then, he said, "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 said.

Durbin didn’t cite any specific examples of potential ethics violations. ProPublica recently published reports about how Justice Clarence Thomas didn’t disclose gifts and luxury travel from wealthy GOP donor Harlan Crow, as well as about the sale of properties from Thomas' family to Crow.

Those allegations have been referred to a judicial committee that reviews financial disclosures, NBC News reported Wednesday.

Durbin said in his letter Thursday that Roberts could also designate another justice to testify instead at the hearing, scheduled for May 2.

Durbin made it clear that Roberts wouldn’t have to answer any other unrelated questions from senators and that "the scope of your testimony can be limited" to the subject of ethics.

Durbin wrote that there is "ample precedent" for sitting justices to testify before Congress, saying lawmakers most recently heard testimony from them in October 2011.

"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 said. "The time has come for a new public conversation on ways to restore confidence in the Court's ethical standards."

The Supreme Court didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Until the federal judiciary announced last month that it had tightened rules surrounding financial disclosures, Supreme Court justices were able to take advantage of a loophole that allowed them to avoid disclosing certain gifts.

Even before the latest reports surrounding disclosures, Thomas had come under fire over the actions of his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, including her support for former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. 

Democrats have been critical of the Supreme Court's 6-3 conservative majority, especially since it ruled last year to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which protected the right to undergo an abortion.

And what made matters worse was the leaking a month before of an unpublished draft opinion that indicated that the court was ready to reverse the landmark abortion ruling. An investigation into the leak was unable to conclusively identify who was responsible.