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Chief Justice Roberts declines to testify about ethics before Senate Judiciary Committee

Washington — Chief Justice John Roberts has declined an invitation from Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Dick Durbin to testify about ethics rules governing the Supreme Court. 

"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 in a letter sent to Durbin on Tuesday. 

Durbin had asked Roberts or "another justice whom you designate" to appear before the committee on May 2 to answer questions about ethics rules and potential reforms amid revelations about Justice Clarence Thomas' close ties to a billionaire Republican donor. 

"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," Durbin wrote last week in a letter to Roberts. "The court's decades-long failure to address them has contributed to a crisis of public confidence.The status quo is no longer tenable." 

Durbin said such testimony "could strengthen faith in our public institutions" and help "restore confidence in the court's ethical standards." 

Citing the Supreme Court Library, Roberts said there have been only two prior instances of justices testifying before Congress on matters not related to appropriations or nominations — Chief Justice William Howard Taft in 1921 and Chief Justice Charles Hughes in 1935. Chief Justice William Rehnquist appeared before House committees twice "also on mundane topics," Roberts said. 

In his response, Roberts also attached a three-page Statement of Ethics Principles and Practices "to which all of the current Members of the Supreme Court subscribe."  

The request for Roberts's testimony followed scrutiny of Thomas and his relationship with real estate magnate and Republican donor Harlan Crow. ProPublica reported that Thomas had accepted luxury trips and vacations from Crow, and that Crow purchased three properties belonging to the justice and his family. 

Thomas did not report the trips or the land deal on his financial disclosure forms. Thomas said in a statement that he consulted with his colleagues and others in the judiciary early in his Supreme Court tenure and was "advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the court, was not reportable."

In a statement Tuesday, Durbin said the committee will still hold a hearing on Supreme Court ethics reforms next month. 

"I extended an invitation to the Chief Justice, or his designate, in an attempt to include the Court in this discussion," the statement said. "But make no mistake: Supreme Court ethics reform must happen whether the Court participates in the process or not." 

Durbin, citing the Congressional Research Service, said Supreme Court justices have testified to Congress in at least 92 hearings since 1960 "addressing such issues as the constitutional role of judges, judicial security, annual appropriations for the courts, and judicial compensation." 

— Jack Turman and Melissa Quinn contributed to this report. 

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