The chief justice of the US supreme court, John Roberts, said he and the other justices were working to hold themselves to the “highest standards” of ethical conduct.
“I want to assure people that I am committed to making certain that we as a court adhere to the highest standards of conduct,” Roberts told an awards dinner in Washington on Tuesday.
He was speaking the same day lawyers for Harlan Crow said the Republican mega-donor would not cooperate with the Senate judiciary committee.
The panel asked for list of gifts Crow has given to the conservative justice Clarence Thomas and which Thomas mostly did not declare: the source of scandal and calls for Thomas to resign or be removed.
Crow has also rebuffed the Senate finance committee. Last month, Roberts himself rejected a judiciary committee request for testimony about the Thomas affair.
On Tuesday, Roberts said: “We are continuing to look at things we can do to give practical effect to that commitment, and I am confident that there are ways to do that consistent with our status as an independent branch of government and the constitution’s separation of powers.”
Lawyers for Crow cited the same concept when they said Congress did not have authority to investigate gifts to Thomas.
ProPublica has reported that gifts from Crow to Thomas included luxury travel and resort stays, purchase of a property in which the justice’s mother lives rent-free, and schooling for Thomas’s great-nephew. Crow has also donated in support of Ginni Thomas, the justice’s wife, a hardline rightwing activist.
Thomas has said he was advised he did not have to declare gifts from Crow and will do so in future. Crow has said he and Thomas never discuss politics or business before the court. The Guardian has shown Crow has had business before the court during his friendship with Thomas.
Supreme court justices are subject to federal ethics rules – which observers have said Thomas clearly broke – but in practice govern themselves. In his remarks on Tuesday, Roberts did not say what the justices were doing or planned to do.
On Wednesday, Kyle Herrig, president of the advocacy group Accountable.US, said Roberts “sat back and watched while the supreme court corruption crisis reached a fever pitch, causing public trust in his court to plummet.
“Now, he’s admitting more can be done – but keeps pretending he isn’t responsible for cleaning up his own court. Americans deserve more than a few noncommittal comments behind closed doors. Chief Justice Roberts himself has the power to change the ethics standards of our nation’s highest court, but so far, he hasn’t shown the courage. Instead of preaching to a private crowd, he should take action.”
Roberts was accepting an award from the American Law Institute, at the National Building Museum. He said he had not made extensive public comments since before the coronavirus pandemic.
Since then, the court has handed down divisive rulings including Dobbs v Jackson, which removed the federal right to abortion.
Roberts, a conservative appointed by George W Bush, sided with the liberal justices in voting to uphold Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling which guaranteed abortion rights. But five other conservatives – three appointed by Donald Trump thanks to Senate Republicans’ ruthless political hardball – voted in the majority.
On Monday, Ron DeSantis, the hard-right Florida governor who is expected to run for the Republican presidential nomination, mused publicly about the chance to cement a 7-2 conservative majority to last a “quarter-century”.
Public trust in the supposedly non-partisan court has reached historic lows.
Nonetheless, on Tuesday Roberts echoed comments by the conservative Samuel Alito, author of the Dobbs ruling, when he complained of public divisions over the court and threats to justices.
Referring to a judge and mentor for whom the award was named, Roberts said: “The things going on outside this chamber would be deeply disappointing to him.
“There is much in the legal world that he would find abhorrent. Judges heckled and shouted down at law schools. Protesters outside the homes of justices, with marshal protection needed 24/7.”
Roberts also said the hardest decision he had made as chief justice was not in any case. It was, he said, “whether to erect fences and barricades around the supreme court” when the Dobbs decision was due, knowing protests would follow.
“I had no choice but to go ahead and do it,” he said.
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