Congress demands answers from Chief Justice Roberts on Supreme Court ethics scandals

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamie Raskin press Chief Justice John Roberts on ethics standards amid controversies involving Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

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Image Credit: Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press Pool, file

Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamie Raskin have called into question whether Chief Justice John Roberts has taken any action to address the storm cloud of scandals surrounding the Supreme Court. A new letter obtained first by CNN reveals their concerns and demands for accountability.

The letter addresses the mounting ethics scandals involving Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Raskin and Ocasio-Cortez asked Roberts to answer five written questions about what steps he has taken in his role as chief justice and presiding officer of the Judicial Conference. They also pressed Roberts to outline the standards for recusal decisions, given the apparent conflicts of interest Thomas and Alito have in two cases involving former President Donald Trump currently in front of the Supreme Court.

Recent ethics scandals involving Thomas and Alito have left public approval of the court at historic lows. This letter represents the latest example of tension between the high court, where conservatives hold a 6-3 majority, and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have been pushing for tighter ethics rules for over a year.

Raskin and Ocasio-Cortez, both serving on the GOP-led House Oversight Committee, questioned Roberts’ leadership in addressing these ethics concerns. The letter follows Roberts declining a May request from Democratic senators to meet on this issue. “Since you have refused to meet with Congress, we question what steps you are actually taking as either the Chief Justice or the presiding officer of the Judicial Conference to investigate these glaring episodes of political bias and lack of disclosure,” they wrote.

Roberts has faced criticism for not being proactive on the issue of Thomas’s failure to disclose lavish trips on his financial disclosure forms. Thomas is under intense scrutiny for gifts he received from Harlan Crow, a GOP megadonor who treated Thomas and his wife to extravagant vacations, private plane trips, paid for the tuition of a Thomas family member, and entered into an unusual real estate transaction related to the home of Thomas’ mother.

“Investigative journalists and Senate investigators—not the Judicial Conference—have been the ones to break the silence and reveal Justices Thomas’s failure to comply with basic disclosure requirements,” the lawmakers wrote.

Roberts, when declining the invitation to meet with Senate Democrats, argued that “separation of powers concerns and the importance of preserving judicial independence counsel against such appearances.”

Under Roberts’ leadership, the Supreme Court announced in 2023 a new code of conduct in an attempt to bolster the public’s confidence in the court after months of news stories alleging that some of the justices have been skirting ethics regulations. However, the justices failed to explain how the code would work and who would enforce it, and acknowledged they had more work to do, including on financial disclosures.

Ocasio-Cortez and Raskin’s letter highlighted Alito’s refusal to recuse from cases involving the 2020 presidential election or the January 6, 2021, US Capitol riot. Concerns were raised over two controversial flags that have flown at his residences in Virginia and New Jersey, suggesting sympathy with people who protested President Joe Biden’s election win over Trump in 2020. Thomas has also refused to recuse himself from a high-stakes case over whether Trump has presidential immunity from criminal prosecution, despite his wife Virginia “Ginni” Thomas’s efforts to reverse the 2020 presidential election in Trump’s favor and her attendance at the rally Trump held on January 6, 2021, shortly before the US Capitol attack.

The Supreme Court is currently weighing major cases tied to the 2020 election and the attack on the US Capitol. One case involves Trump’s claim of absolute immunity from special counsel Jack Smith’s election subversion charges. Another involves a January 6 rioter challenging an obstruction charge filed against him by prosecutors, arguing that Congress intended that law to apply to people destroying evidence, not storming a government building.

Raskin and Ocasio-Cortez are seeking a response from Roberts by July 5. They criticized Roberts for failing to address Thomas’s non-disclosure of gifts and Alito’s controversial recusal decisions. “We question what steps you are actually taking as either the Chief Justice or the presiding officer of the Judicial Conference to investigate these glaring episodes of political bias and lack of disclosure,” they wrote.

Alito’s letter to lawmakers last month stated that he would not recuse from cases involving the 2020 presidential election or the January 6th riot. This stance has only intensified scrutiny and criticism. Thomas’s decision to remain involved in cases related to Trump, despite his wife’s controversial actions, has further fueled the call for stricter ethics rules.

The tension between the Supreme Court and Congress continues to grow as public confidence in the judiciary declines. Raskin and Ocasio-Cortez’s push for answers and accountability highlights the ongoing struggle for transparency and integrity within the highest court in the United States.

Raskin and Ocasio-Cortez concluded their letter with a strong call for accountability: “The American people deserve to know that their highest court operates with the highest ethical standards. We urge you to take immediate and transparent action to address these serious concerns.”

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