Speed Reads

Checks and balances?

Chief Justice John Roberts declines Senate invitation to testify on mounting ethics concerns

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) last week invited Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts or another justice to testify on ethics standards at the high court, following a series of revelations involving Justice Clarence Thomas. Roberts sent back his response on Tuesday: No thanks

Roberts said in a letter to Durbin he would "respectfully decline" the request to appear May 2, adding that "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." He attached a "statement of ethics principles and practices" signed by all nine justices that reiterated the ethical rules the justice hold themselves to and insisted they were sufficient. 

Durbin was not impressed. "I am surprised that the chief justice's recounting of existing legal standards of ethics suggests current law is adequate and ignores the obvious," he said, noting that "one justice" failed to disclose yacht and private jet travel he was gifted or his sale of property to the same benefactor. Durbin said he will go ahead with the hearing, because "it is time for Congress to accept its responsibility to establish an enforceable code of ethics for the Supreme Court, the only agency of our government without it."

Following the disclosures of vacations and home sales Thomas accepted from Texas billionaire Harlan Crow, Politico reported Tuesday that Justice Neil Gorsuch and two partners sold a tract of land in Colorado to the chief executive of Greenberg Traurig, a major law firm with frequent business before the Supreme Court, nine days after Gorsuch was confirmed as a justice.

Greenberg Traurig CEO Brian Duffy put the 40-acre vacation property under contract on April 16, 2017, and closed a month later. Gorsuch and his partners had been trying to sell the land for two years before Duffy stepped in. On his disclosure sheet, Gorsuch listed the asset as "Walden Group LLC" — the partnership in which he held a 20 percent stake — and said it was valued at $250,000 to $500,000. He did not indicate that real estate was involved, and he left the box for "identity of buyer/seller (if private transaction)" blank.

"Such a sale would raise ethical problems for officials serving in many other branches of government," Politico reports, "but the Supreme Court sets its own rules."

Duffy, who is based in Colorado, told Politico he did not know Gorsuch owned the property when he made his first bid — The New York Times notes it reported Gorsuch's ownership stake in a March 2017 article — and has never met the justice in person.