A group of 18 House Democrats wrote a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts on Tuesday urging him to establish an independent investigative arm within the Supreme Court — and pressing for that office to probe Justice Clarence Thomas' relationship with a wealthy GOP donor.
The letter, led by Rep. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y., and co-authored by 17 colleagues who have worked as prosecutors, judges and law enforcement officials, was first shared with NBC News. It criticizes Roberts for saying the court can convince the public that it "adheres to the highest standards of conduct" without taking new action to address recent ethics questions.
In April, ProPublica reported that Thomas has been a repeat guest on GOP megadonor Harlan Crow's jet and yacht, traveling across the country and the world without disclosing those gifts and others.
This month, the same outlet reported that Justice Samuel Alito traveled at the expense of another top Republican donor, hedge fund giant Paul Singer, on a fishing trip to Alaska. Since that 2008 vacation, ProPublica wrote, Singer's hedge fund has had cases come before the high court at least 10 times.
"Despite your insistence that the Court can police itself, you have provided no rationale or vision for how the Court will do so," Goldman and 17 co-authors wrote. "Moreover, the Court’s failure to conduct a meaningful, independent investigation into allegations against Justices Thomas and Alito only underscores widespread concerns that the Supreme Court is not subject to a code of ethics or an adequate enforcement process."
The letter comes amid multiple Senate efforts to legislate new ethics standards for the high court, and Democratic leaders in the chamber have vowed to pass a bill. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., opposes that push, and there has been no indication that the Republican-led House would match any Senate action.
The Goldman letter recommends an "independent investigative body" be established within the court that can provide transparency and accountability by probing "alleged ethical improprieties."
"Using a revamped and independent internal investigative process, we urge that investigative body to engage in a substantial investigation — culminating with a public report — on the many allegations of ethical lapses and conflicts of interests by Justice Thomas," the authors wrote.
The letter also urges Roberts to create a counsel to advise justices on disclosure, recusal decisions and other ethical matters.
"If, as you say, the Court is capable of upholding the highest ethical standards, then we hope you will accept our recommendations to establish an independent and transparent investigative body and separate ethics counsel to regain the trust and confidence of the American people," the group of former prosecutors, judges and law enforcement officials wrote.
After the Thomas story broke in April, Roberts declined Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin's request for him to appear before the panel to discuss Supreme Court ethics. Roberts cited the "separation of powers" and his desire to preserve "judicial independence."
Roberts is under no obligation to respond to the Goldman letter, much less create new institutions within the court.