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Judiciary Committee Dems call on Chief Justice Roberts to clarify Supreme Court ethics rules

The chairman and Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said a statement of principles the chief justice sent to the panel earlier this week is insufficient.
John Roberts at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 16, 2020
Chief Justice John Roberts has refused to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Supreme Court ethics principles.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin and the panel's other Democrats are calling on Chief Justice John Roberts to answer follow-up questions about ethics principles guiding the Supreme Court.

The senators said in a letter to Roberts on Thursday that a statement of principles that he attached to a letter to the committee this week is insufficient on its own.

"The statement of principles raises more questions than it resolves, and we request that you respond to several key questions," they said, adding that Roberts' answers would help the committee's work on legislation to deal with the justices' ethical obligations.

In the letter, Roberts declined to testify at a Judiciary Committee hearing next month about ethics rules governing the high court.

Senators on Thursday listed several questions that they want Roberts to answer by Monday, asking, for example, when justices subscribed to the Statement on Ethics Principles and Practice and if they previously followed a different version.

The lawmakers noted the statement provided by Roberts says the justices "consult a wide variety of authorities to address specific ethical issues," and asked, "What guidance do Justices receive on which authorities to consult, and how is this consultation process and any final decision on a particular matter documented?"

They also asked if there has "ever been any censure, reprimand, admonition, sanction, or other penalty imposed on a Justice for failure to abide by any of the principles and practices?"

"If so, what types of penalties have been, or may be, imposed?" they asked. "Is there a process by which the public may file, and the Supreme Court may receive, complaints that a Justice has failed to abide by these principles?"

The senators suggested in his letter that Roberts' decision to decline the committee's invitation, or to designate another justice to appear, goes against a long history of justices testifying before Congress.

"It is noteworthy that no Justice will speak to the American people after numerous revelations have called the Court’s ethical standards into question, even though sitting Justices have testified before Senate or House Committees on at least 92 occasions since 1960," they said.

The exchange between the Senate committee's Democrats and Roberts comes after ProPublica's recently published reports about how Justice Clarence Thomas didn’t disclose gifts and trips from wealthy GOP donor Harlan Crow, as well as about the sale of properties from Thomas’ family to Crow. Thomas has since said the gifts were “personal hospitality."

Those allegations have been referred to a judicial committee that reviews financial disclosures.