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Roberts invited to testify at Senate hearing on Supreme Court ethics

The Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts was asked to testify before a Senate Judiciary panel hearing on court ethics next month.
Jacquelyn Martin
The Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts was asked to testify before a Senate Judiciary panel hearing on court ethics next month.

The invitation to attend a Senate judiciary hearing comes amid reports that Justice Clarence Thomas did not disclose luxury trips.

The chair of the Senate Judiciary committee has invited Chief Justice John Roberts to testify at a hearing next month focused on the ethical rules governing the Supreme Court as well as potential changes to those guidelines.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. said in a letter to Roberts on Thursday that recent reports found the justices are "falling short" of the ethical standards they and other public servants are supposed to follow.

"The status quo is no longer tenable," Durbin wrote.

The call for Roberts' testimony comes at a turbulent time for the court and its members. Concerns surrounding the lifetime appointees involve Justice Clarence Thomas, who, according to an investigation by ProPublica, failed to disclose 20 years of luxury trips with billionaire and Republican donor Harlan Crow.

ProPublica found that Thomas joined Crow on lavish getaways on the Dallas businessman's private jet and yacht, including a 2019 holiday worth $500,000. And the Washington Post reported earlier this week that Thomas has claimed rental income from a real estate firm that closed up shop in 2006.

Thomas responded to the reports saying he was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from a close personal friend, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable.

Last summer's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the landmark case granting the federal right to an abortion, raised concerns about the justices and political bias. Findings from an NPR/IPSOS poll conducted in January found that 62% of Americans believe the court's decision was based more on politics than the law.

Roberts defended the court's authority last September when he was interviewed by two judges from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at a conference saying, "You don't want the political branches telling you what the law is, and you don't want public opinion to be the guide about what the appropriate decision is."

In his letter, Durbin said there is "ample precedent" for sitting justices to testify before Congress, citing an October 2011 Senate Judiciary hearing when then-Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer discussed the interpretation of the Constitution. The senator wrote that an appearance from Roberts, or another justice in his stead, could help re-establish Americans' faith in public institutions.

"The time has come fore a new public conversation on ways to restore confidence in the Court's ethical standards," Durbin wrote. "I invite you to join it, and I look forward to your response."

Durbin told NPR Political Correspondent Susan Davis Thursday that the hearing will take place whether Roberts accepts the invitation or not.

As of the time of publishing, the Supreme Court has not issued a response to Durbin's call for testimony.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.