Durbin: Chief Justice Roberts Should Strengthen Supreme Court Ethics Standards Before The Court’s Summer Recess

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today spoke on the Senate floor about the need for stronger Supreme Court ethics standards before the Court recesses for the summer.  Durbin’s calls come after ProPublica reporting that Justice Clarence Thomas accepted and failed to disclose years’ worth of luxury travel and lodging from prominent Republican donor Harlan Crow, much of which took place during the Court’s summer recesses.  Durbin noted that Chief Justice John Roberts has the authority to take action immediately to bind the Justices to higher ethical standards, and said that if the Chief Justice does not act, Congress must.  Durbin also highlighted letters that he and Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats sent to Harlan Crow and companies in his business empire seeking information that would help guide the Committee’s legislative efforts.  Durbin began his speech by highlighting the various travel and gifts Justice Thomas received from Crow. 

Durbin said, “Most recently, ProPublica found that in June 2019, right after the Court issued its final opinion of that term, Justice Clarence Thomas boarded a private jet to Indonesia.  Then the Justice and his wife spent nine days island-hopping through the South Pacific on a 162-foot yacht.  ProPublica estimated the cost of chartering this plane and yacht at more than half a million dollars.  But Justice Thomas did not pay for it.  The travel and trip were provided by billionaire real estate developer Harlan Crow and by several corporate entities in Crow’s business empire.  This is just one example of the largesse provided to Justice Thomas by Mr. Crow and his businesses… Justice Thomas did not disclose any of these gifts, or travel, or lodging, or other benefits.”

Durbin continued, “Now let me say at the outset: Justice Thomas is not the only Supreme Court Justice, past or present, who has accepted gifts or free travel and failed to disclose them in a timely manner.  But the scope and scale of the undisclosed gifts Justice Thomas has accepted go far beyond anything else we have seen.  And this highlights the enormous gaps in the ethical standards for Supreme Court Justices.” 

In response to the ProPublica reporting, Durbin invited Chief Justice Roberts, or another Justice whom the Chief Justice designated, to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee at an ethics reform hearing entitled “Supreme Court Ethics Reform.”  The Chief Justice declined to appear.  In his letter declining Durbin’s invitation, the Chief Justice attached a “Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices” that raised more questions than it answered.  Durbin’s opening statement from that hearing is available here and his questions for the witnesses are available here.

Durbin has been calling on the Supreme Court to adopt an enforceable code of ethics conduct for more than a decade.  He first sent a letter to the Chief Justice on this issue 11 years ago.

Durbin continued, “In February of 2012, 11 years ago, I first wrote to Chief Justice Roberts and urged him to adopt a code of ethics, ethical conduct, to bind the Justices—just like the code that binds every other federal judge in America.  Chief Justice Roberts failed to act when I wrote him 11 years ago. Since then, the Court's ethics problems have gotten worse… I invited him, personally, to testify at a hearing before our Senate Judiciary Committee so he could speak directly to the American people.  How many times does a Supreme Court Justice come across the street and formally appear before Congress?  It turns out, 92 different times since the year 1960.  This would have been an opportunity for the Chief Justice to reassure the American people and start to restore trust in the high court… Trust in the Court has fallen to the lowest point in 50 years.” 

“The Chief Justice has the ability—right now—to impose higher ethical standards on the Justices—standards that would be transparent and enforceable.  He could take action today.  But so far, he has declined that opportunity.  And if he won’t act, Congress must.  We cannot tolerate a system in which the highest court in America has the lowest ethical standards in the federal government.  And we certainly should not begin another Supreme Court summer recess in which Justices can accept free trips and travel under an inadequate set of ethics rules,” Durbin said.

Earlier this month, the Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, and Federal Rights held a hearing entitled “Review of Federal Judicial Ethics Processes at the Judicial Conference of the United States,” featuring testimony from the Honorable Mark L. Wolf, Senior U.S. District Judge for the District of Massachusetts.  Durbin’s opening statement from that hearing is available here

“The Senate Judiciary Committee has a responsibility to exercise oversight over the federal judiciary.  We take it seriously.  We have held two ethics reform hearings so far this year, and soon we will consider legislation to restore trust in the High Court.  When billionaires and other people with interests before the Court try to ingratiate themselves with Justices through gifts and luxury getaways, and when they can obtain special, private access to the Justices for themselves and others, it’s a serious problem,” Durbin said. 

Last Friday, Durbin and U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Chair of Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, and Federal Rights, sent a follow up letter to Crow seeking to identify the full extent of Mr. Crow’s gifts of travel and lodging to Justice Thomas, which other individuals were able to gain personal and private access to Justice Thomas and any other Justices via the travel and lodging provided, and whether those individuals had interests before the Supreme Court.  The Senators’ letter rejected Crow’s claimed justifications for initially refusing to provide this information, pointing out that Crow’s May 22 response letter fails to recognize Congress’s clearly-established legislative and oversight authority and improperly tries to invoke separation of powers, a doctrine that is implicated when Congress requests information from coordinate branches of government, not from private individuals like Crow.  In addition to the letter to Crow, Durbin and Whitehouse sent follow up letters to the holding companies that own Crow’s private jet, private yacht, and Topridge Camp last Friday.  These letters follow the May 8th letters all Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats sent to those entities. 

Durbin continued, “If Mr. Crow is convinced he has done nothing wrong, then what does he have to hide?  Senator Whitehouse, the Chair of the Federal Courts Subcommittee, and I responded to Mr. Crow last week and informed him he has until next Monday, June 5 to provide the information we requested.  As I mentioned, we will soon be considering legislation in Committee and his information could be helpful in our legislative effort.”

“Let me close by reiterating that Chief Justice Roberts does not have to wait for Mr. Crow or Congress.  He can clean up this mess today by adopting a resolution binding the Justices to higher ethical standards…  Chief Justice Roberts has known for more than ten years that this is a problem and that this is within his authority… If the Chief Justice and the Court do not act, we will,” Durbin concluded.   

On April 10, Durbin and his Senate Judiciary Committee Democratic colleagues sent a letter to the Chief Justice urging him to take swift action to address reported conduct by Justices that is inconsistent with the ethical standards the American people expect of public servants.  Durbin received a response letter from the Secretary of the Judicial Conference of the United States and it stated that the Senators’ April 10 letter was referred to the Judicial Conference and forwarded to the Judicial Conference Committee on Financial Disclosure. 

Video of Durbin’s floor speech is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s floor speech is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s floor speech is available here for TV Stations.