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Roberts to Congress: Drop Dead


He may not be on a never-ending whining tour like Sam Alito, but John Roberts is every bit as contemptuous of the idea that the Supreme Court should be in any way accountable to anyone:

“There has been a steady stream of revelations regarding justices falling short of the ethical standards expected of other federal judges and, indeed, of public servants generally,” Durbin wrote in his letter to the chief justice. “These problems were already apparent back in 2011, and the Court’s decade-long failure to address them has contributed to a crisis of public confidence.”

“The time has come for a new public conversation on ways to restore confidence in the Court’s ethical standards,” Durbin went on to say. “I invite you to join it, and I look forward to your response.”

This week Roberts answered. He said, in a word, no.

“I must respectfully decline your invitation,” Roberts wrote. “Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee by the chief justice of the United States is exceedingly rare as one might expect in light of separation of powers concerns and the importance of preserving judicial independence.”

This deceptively polite reply sounds reasonable for as long as you can manage to forget the fact that it is questions about the ethical conduct of the court and its members that have compromised the independence of the court. Was Thomas influenced by the largess of his billionaire benefactor? Was Justice Samuel Alito influenced by an explicit campaign to curry favor with the conservative justices? Was Justice Neil Gorsuch influenced by the lucrative sale of a Colorado property, in the wake of his confirmation, to the head of a powerful law firm with ample business before the court?

It is with real chutzpah, in other words, that Roberts has claimed judicial independence in order to circumvent an investigation into judicial independence.

More striking than this evasion is the manner in which Roberts ended his reply. Faced with serious questions about the integrity of the court, he pointed to a nonbinding ethics document that has done almost nothing to prevent these situations from arising in the first place. “In regard to the Court’s approach to ethics matters,” he wrote, “I attached a Statement of Ethics Principles and Practices to which all of the current members of the Supreme Court subscribe.”

Combining these points, Supreme Court justices should feel free to accept as many undisclosed payments from people with business before the court as they like, and if you are critical of such practices you’re essentially Sirhan Sirhan. The autocrats!

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