Durbin Questions Witness During Judiciary Subcommittee Hearing On Judicial Ethics Processes At The Judicial Conference Of The U.S.

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today questioned Senior Judge Mark Wolf of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, who served as a member of the Judicial Conference from 2010-2012, at the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, and Federal Rights hearing entitled, “Review of Federal Judicial Ethics Processes at the Judicial Conference of the United States.”  Durbin questioned Judge Wolf about holding Supreme Court Justices to the same ethical standards as any other federal judge or public official.

“When we had a hearing about two weeks ago on issues related to Justice Clarence Thomas and his disclosure standards, it really broke on party lines.  And the same thing happened today, which comes as a disappointment to me as much as a surprise.  This notion that anyone in public office, at the level of a Senator or Supreme Court Justice, could receive hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts, and travel, and hospitality, and not disclose it, and argue well that was inadvertent is to ignore the obvious.  The American public takes a look at that and says what is that judge doing?  How can we trust his judgement if one Texas billionaire has such a large part of his life?  What’s your response to that?” Durbin asked. 

Judge Wolf reflected on the Ethics in Government Act—which is applicable to all federal judges, including Supreme Court Justices, to ensure financial disclosure transparency, but reiterated concerns about the Judicial Conference process for handling allegations of noncompliance with the Act.   

Durbin responded, “That goes to the heart of the issue before us.  And that is the fact that the Supreme Court of the United States of America has not established a code of conduct or ethical standards that [is] trustworthy… That to me gets to the heart of why we need to enact legislation.  This is not a witch hunt, this is to try to rescue the reputation of the Court.”

The hearing examined the roles the Judicial Conference and its Committee on Financial Disclosure have in reviewing allegations that members of the federal judiciary have failed to comply with the disclosure requirements of the Ethics in Government Act.  Judge Wolf was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1985.

Video of Durbin’s questions in Committee are available here. 

Audio of Durbin’s questions in Committee are available here. 

Footage of Durbin’s questions in Committee are available here for TV Stations.

Earlier this month, the Judiciary Committee held a full committee hearing entitled, “Supreme Court Ethics Reform.”  The hearing emphasized the clear need for reform and examined common sense proposals to hold Justices to – at minimum – the same ethical standards as every other federal judge or high-ranking official in the federal government.  Durbin’s opening statement from the hearing is available here and his questions for the witnesses are available here. 

Durbin invited Chief Justice John Roberts, or another Justice whom the Chief Justice designated, to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the May 2nd hearing.  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.

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.

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