Democrats condemn Roberts’ refusal to testify over US supreme court ethics row | US supreme court

Democrats and progressives reacted angrily after John Roberts, the chief justice of the supreme court, declined an invitation to testify before the Senate judiciary committee about corruption allegations against members of his court.

Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut senator, said: “The marble pillars of the supreme court and platitudes about its independence no longer provide refuge. He must face the nation.”

Sheldon Whitehouse, from Rhode Island, said: “The gaping hole in today’s response from Roberts … is that it overlooks the complete failure of process regarding ethics questions involving the justices. When there’s no ref, there’s no rule.”

Typically, voices outside the Senate were less restrained.

Jay Willis, an attorney and writer for Balls and Strikes, a progressive website covering courts and the law, wrote: “Holy shit this John Roberts letter sucks. ‘Sorry can’t testify, judicial independence, enclosed is a copy of our fake ethics rules, have a nice day’???

“Subpoena his ass posthaste.”

Roberts answered an invitation sent by Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate judiciary chair, after ProPublica reported the close friendship between Clarence Thomas, the senior conservative on the court, and the Republican mega-donor Harlan Crow.

Thomas received but largely did not declare extensive gifts including luxury travel and resort stays. Crow also purchased a property in which Thomas’s mother lives, and donated money to groups connected to Ginni Thomas, the justice’s activist wife.

Thomas and Crow denied wrongdoing.

On Tuesday, Politico reported that another conservative, Neil Gorsuch, made as much as $500,000 from a property sale shortly after joining the court but did not disclose that the buyer was chief executive of a law firm with business before the court.

Gorsuch did not comment. The executive, Brian Duffy, denied wrongdoing.

In a letter to Durbin on Tuesday evening, Roberts “respectfully declined” the Democrat’s invitation to testify on 2 May, citing concerns regarding the separation of powers and attaching “a statement of ethics and principles and practices to which all current members of the supreme court subscribe”.

Durbin said: “I am surprised that the chief justice’s recounting of existing legal standards of ethics suggests current law is adequate and ignores the obvious.”

Supreme court justices are subject to federal ethics rules but essentially govern themselves.

Referring to Thomas, Durbin added: “The actions of one justice, including trips on yachts and private jets, were not reported to the public. That same justice failed to disclose the sale of properties he partly owned to a party with interests before the supreme court.”

Durbin cannot currently subpoena Roberts, to force testimony, because to do so would require a majority on the judiciary committee. Democrats control the panel but one of their number, 89-year-old Dianne Feinstein of California, has long been absent through ill health. Republicans have blocked a temporary replacement.

Democrats including the New York progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have called for Thomas to be impeached and removed – a hugely unlikely outcome. Republicans control the House, where impeachment would start, and are opposed to action against the court.

Nonetheless, public trust in the court has reached all-time lows.

Roberts presides over a panel dominated 6-3 by conservatives after three confirmations under the presidency of Donald Trump and which has passed down major rulings including removing the right to abortion and loosening state gun laws.

On Tuesday another Democratic senator, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, said: “The supreme court’s decision to bury its head in the sand in the face of this deluge of conflict of interest revelations is horrible for the court’s legitimacy.”

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