Apr 20, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Senate asks chief justice to testify in escalation of Thomas scrutiny

Sen. Dick Durbin. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday requested testimony from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts about ethical standards on the nation's highest court.

Why it matters: It's an escalation of the Senate's response to reports that conservative Justice Clarence Thomas has for decades received gifts from billionaire Republican mega-donor Harlan Crow.

Driving the news: In a letter to Roberts, Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked the chief justice to appear at a public hearing on May 2 "regarding the ethical rules that govern the Justices of the Supreme Court and potential reforms to those rules."

  • Durbin offered to limit the scope of the testimony to just those topics and said Roberts "would not be expected to answer questions from Senators regarding any other matters" – potentially referring to questions about Thomas.
  • Durbin also said Roberts could designate another justice to testify in his place.
  • "There is ample precedent for sitting Justices of the Supreme Court to testify before Congress, including regarding ethics," he wrote, pointing to testimony from Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer in 2011.

The backdrop: Senate Democrats have been pushing for legislation imposing a code of ethics for justices, potentially as part of an annual spending bill.

  • Some Democrats have called for a subpoena to be on the table if Roberts declines to testify.
  • But Durbin has noted Democrats lack the majority vote to approve such a move, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) absent and Republicans blocking efforts to temporarily replace her on the panel.

What we're watching: Progressive calls for Thomas to be punished over reports of his ties to Crow are growing louder.

  • Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) on Tuesday joined Reps. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) in calling for Thomas to be impeached.
  • "Justice Thomas holds a complete disregard for law and ethics that is incompatible with the trust and confidence placed in federal judges," Bush said in a press release. "Because the federal judiciary has failed to hold Justice Thomas accountable, I am calling for impeachment proceedings."
  • Durbin and other top Democrats have called for Roberts to open an investigation into Thomas.

Go deeper: Listen to the Axios Today podcast, where host Niala Boodhoo and David Lindsey discuss the headlines Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been making this month for possible ethics breaches.

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