WASHINGTON — A request by Senate Democrats that Chief Justice John Roberts investigate possible ethics violations by Justice Clarence Thomas has instead been referred to a judicial panel, prompting a renewed request for Roberts to testify on the matter.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin said Saturday a request by him and the panel’s other Democrats that Roberts investigate a news report that Thomas accepted lavish trips from a Republican donor was referred to a committee of the Judicial Conference that deals with ethics and financial disclosures.

Congress Supreme Court Ethics

The Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary has invited Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to testify next month at a hearing on ethics standards. J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press file

Durbin suggested the decision by the conference, which serves as the federal judiciary’s policymaking body, strengthens his case for asking Roberts to respond directly by testifying at a Judiciary Committee hearing scheduled for May 2.

“It is becoming clear that such an appearance by the Chief Justice may be the only way for the Court to set out with clarity any meaningful and credible reform,” Durbin said in a statement. Roberts hasn’t responded to the invitation, he said.

A spokeswoman for Roberts had no immediate comment.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, also a member of the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia recently asked the Judicial Conference to investigate and received similar responses. The letters gave no indication of what action the conference’s committee would take, if any. The responses suggest Roberts won’t take up the matter on his own.


Whitehouse and Johnson had asked the Judicial Conference to look into Thomas’s decision not to report luxury trips and gifts from Harlan Crow, a Texas billionaire, and longtime Republican donor.

Durbin made the unusual request that Roberts appear before the panel or choose another justice to testify in his place, saying in a Thursday letter to the chief justice that a “decade-long failure” to act on a high-court code of ethics has fueled “a crisis of public confidence.”

“As our April 10th letter stated, if the Court does not address shortcomings in its ethical standards, Congress must,” Durbin said.

Democrats in Congress are applying pressure on Roberts to act on an ethics code, threatening congressional action if he doesn’t. Still, Republicans who control the House and who can filibuster legislation in the Senate are showing no real interest. Supreme Court justices are the only federal judges not subjected to such a code.

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