Updated Apr 25, 2023 - Politics & Policy

More ethics questions rise for Supreme Court justices

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is seen on Jan. 30, 2018. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on Tuesday declined to testify at a Senate hearing on court ethics.

The big picture: The move comes amid questions about ethics violations from Supreme Court Justices after separate allegations emerged this month against Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas.

  • The Supreme Court is the only court in the federal judiciary that does not have a formal code of ethics for its nine members.
  • Democrats have renewed calls for the Supreme Court to create or adopt an ethics code for justices.

Driving the news: Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said in a letter last week inviting Roberts to testify that there had been "a steady stream of revelations regarding justices falling short of the ethical standards expected of other federal judges" and that this "decades-long failure to address them has contributed to a crisis of public confidence."

  • Roberts responded in a letter Tuesday that he "must respectfully decline" his invitation to testify.
  • "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 there had been only two occasions where justices had testified before Congress on issues not related to appropriations or nominations: Chief Justice William Howard Taft in 1921 and Chief Justice Charles Hughes in 1935, both on "routine matters."

Of note: Roberts attached to his letter a Statement of Ethics Principles and Practices "to which all of the current Members of the Supreme Court subscribe."

State of play: Thomas was accused earlier this month of failing to properly disclose luxury trips received from an influential GOP donor.

  • Then it emerged Tuesday that after nearly two years of trying to sell a vacation property, Gorsuch and two partners found a buyer — who happened to be the head of a major law firm that often practices before the high court.
  • That's according to a financial disclosure report, which shows the sale to Greenberg Traurig CEO Brian Duffy came a month after Gorsuch was appointed to the Supreme Court in April 2017.
  • When Gorsuch reported the $1.8 million sale, the disclosure report indicates that the field asking for the identity of the buyer was left blank.
  • Gorsuch held a 20% stake, according to the disclosure, which was first reported by Politico.

What they're saying: "Are Justices Thomas and Gorsuch corrupt? I don’t know,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) tweeted Tuesday before news of Roberts' letter emerged. "Did they both engage in actions that appear corrupt? Absolutely. That’s why we need to pass the ethics bill for the Supreme Court."

  • Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) asked in a tweet earlier Tuesday: "How much more proof do we need of why the Court needs a code of ethics?"
  • Duffy told Politico he's never personally argued cases before Gorsuch, met him or spoken to him.
  • Duffy and representatives at the Supreme Court did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with statements from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and further context.

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