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Durbin Statement on ProPublica Report & Supreme Court Ethics Reform

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today released the following statement regarding a ProPublica report that alleges that Justice Clarence Thomas accepted and failed to disclose private school tuition payments for his grandnephew made by prominent Republican donor Harlan Crow:

“Today’s report continues a steady stream of revelations calling Justices’ ethics standards and practices into question.  I hope that the Chief Justice understands that something must be done—the reputation and credibility of the Court is at stake. 

“At our Judiciary Committee hearing this week, I was disappointed that not a single Republican on the Committee even raised a question about what’s happening in regards to Justice Thomas’ actions.  I think that all Justices should be held to the same ethical standards as every other federal judge—and I have been calling on the Supreme Court to adopt an enforceable code of conduct for more than a decade.  The highest court in the land should not have the lowest ethical standards.

“We have strong legislative proposals on the table, and they are worthy of support from both sides of the aisle.  I urge my Republican colleagues to work with us in advancing ethics reform measures that will restore public confidence in the Court.  Congress, and our Committee, has the authority to act.  And that’s what the Judiciary Committee will continue to pursue.”

On Tuesday, the Senate 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 Tuesday’s 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.

According to the Congressional Research Service, since 1960, Supreme Court Justices have appeared before Congress to testify in at least 92 hearings, addressing such issues as the constitutional role of judges, judicial security, annual appropriations for the courts, and judicial compensation.

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.