Roberts Memo Threatened To Challenge Ethics Rules

Justice Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice John Roberts. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A decade before Chief Justice John Roberts rejected a Senate request this week to testify about corruption scandals engulfing the Supreme Court, he threatened to challenge a congressional effort to ensure the high court’s justices abide by federal corruption laws, according to documents reviewed by The Lever.

Now, instead of spearheading an investigation into Justice Clarence Thomas’ undisclosed luxury gifts and real estate transactions, Roberts is punting to a little-known panel of lower court judges whose identities are secret, according to a spokesperson for the judiciary.

Roberts’ posture spotlights a crisis in America’s system of checks and balances: If the legislative and executive branches refuse to assert oversight authority over the nation’s highest court, Supreme Court justices can continue to operate with complete impunity.

For weeks now, Washington has been roiled with news that Thomas failed to disclose two decades’ worth of luxury trips provided by billionaire Republican mega-donor Harlan Crow, as well as the sale of property to Crow.

Despite public outcry, what’s happened in Washington in recent weeks suggests that little will come of calls to investigate Thomas.

Part of that is due to Democrats’ ineptitude. The Senate Judiciary Committee cannot subpoena Thomas due to the extended absence of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is recovering from shingles. Feinstein, who has reportedly been suffering from significant memory issues for some time, is set to retire next year but has refused to depart the Senate early.

That has left Democrats begging the Supreme Court to investigate itself — which Roberts has suggested will not be happening.

Roberts made headlines on Tuesday for declining the Senate Judiciary Committee’s voluntary request to testify at a hearing on Supreme Court ethics. He also recently punted on Senate Democrats’ request for the Supreme Court to investigate Thomas, kicking it down to a judicial policymaking body stacked with Republican judges — which then passed the matter down further to a panel of secret judges to handle the matter.

At this point, Democrats appear to be counting on the panel of secret judges to refer Thomas to President Joe Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, for prosecution.

The turn of events suggest that, despite a historic ethical cloud looming over the Supreme Court and a growing number of Americans losing faith in the institution, there will likely be no real reckoning over Thomas’ apparent improprieties.

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