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Roberts declines meeting with senators over Supreme Court ethics

The chief justice calls it ‘inadvisable’ to meet with only two Democrats

John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the United States, arrives on the House floor before President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address to the joint session of Congress in the Capitol in March.
John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the United States, arrives on the House floor before President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address to the joint session of Congress in the Capitol in March. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. on Thursday declined a meeting requested by two Democratic senators following reports that flags tied to the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election were flown outside the homes of Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., last week wrote a letter to Roberts that asked for a meeting about Alito and ethics issues more broadly at the nation’s highest court.

Roberts, who as chief justice of the United States heads the judicial branch, wrote Thursday in a response to Durbin and Whitehouse that it is “rare” for a sitting chief justice to meet with legislators even in a public setting with both major political parties present.

“Separation of powers concerns and the importance of preserving judicial independence counsel against such appearances,” Roberts wrote.

“Moreover, the format proposed — a meeting with leaders of only one party who have expressed interest in matters currently pending before the Court — simply underscores that participating in such a meeting would be inadvisable,” Roberts wrote.

Durbin and Whitehouse in their letter to Roberts wrote that the flag displays called Alito’s impartiality into question and dovetailed with long-standing concerns about the court’s ethics.

The New York Times first reported about the flags earlier this month, sparking a flurry of congressional calls for Alito to recuse himself from cases involving former President Donald Trump.

Shortly after the letter was released Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, that the Democrat-controlled committee will continue an ongoing investigation on the issue.

“We’ve been conducting a thorough investigation into years of ethical lapses by some justices on the Supreme Court. This investigation includes the latest reporting on Justice Alito. We’re moving ahead.” the account posted.

Last year, Roberts turned down an invitation to testify at a Senate Judiciary hearing following reports about undisclosed gifts received by Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas reportedly received free vacations, tuition for a private school for a relative, a forgiven loan for an RV and more from wealthy benefactors. Roberts raised similar separation-of-powers concerns at that time.

Roberts’ response came a day after Alito himself wrote to Durbin and other lawmakers, stating that he was not responsible for the flags that were flown outside his Virginia home and a New Jersey home his wife owns.

In January 2021, an upside-down American flag was flown outside the couple’s Virginia home, at a time when the flag has been used as a symbol supporting Trump. In 2023, an “Appeal to Heaven” flag, carried by some rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was flown outside the New Jersey home.

Alito said in the letters that in both instances, his wife flew the flags.

In the letters, Alito said he would not recuse himself from cases involving whether Trump as a former president is immune from criminal charges, as well as cases related to the 2020 election or the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Following criticism over the justices’ behavior last year, the court adopted a nonbinding ethics code, the first in the institution’s history.

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