John Roberts declines to meet with Democrats over Samuel Alito flag

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WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John Roberts on Thursday declined to meet with Democratic senators to discuss Supreme Court ethics issues in the wake of reports that controversial flags were flown at Justice Samuel Alito‘s houses.

In a letter to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Roberts said he “must respectfully decline your request for a meeting,” citing concerns about maintaining judicial independence.

Roberts’ refusal to meet with senators was not a surprise, as last year he declined to attend a hearing on the ethics issue for similar reasons.

He noted in the latest letter that meeting with representatives of one party “who have expressed an interest in matters pending before the court” is another reason that “such a meeting would be inadvisable.”

Durbin’s office said in a statement Thursday that the senator, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, disagreed with Roberts’ conclusions and would continue to push for legislation that would set up a more rigorous ethics code for the court than the one the justices adopted last year.

“Chair Durbin’s only interest — as it has been since he first raised this issue with the Chief Justice 12 years ago — is restoring the credibility of the Court in the eyes of the American people,” the statement said.

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Whitehouse said in a series of posts on X that it was “frustrating” Roberts failed to address that the meeting was sought in the chief justice’s role as chair of the U.S. Judicial Conference, the administrative and policy-making body of the judiciary, not in his capacity as a member of the court.

“All this means is that the work must continue until we have a Supreme Court that applies to itself basic tenets of rule of law: honest fact-finding and neutral decision-making,” Whitehouse added.

Last week, the two senators asked Roberts to address what they called “the Supreme Court’s ethics crisis” following a New York Times report that flags flown at the Capitol building by some supporters of Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2021, were also displayed at Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s homes.

In their letter the senators asked to meet with Roberts “as soon as possible” and renewed their “call for the Supreme Court to adopt an enforceable code of conduct for justices.”

That was before Alito himself sent letters to Capitol Hill this week declining to step aside from cases involving Trump or Jan. 6.

Alito said the high standard for recusal was not met, noting that the flags were flown by his wife and that he had no involvement in the decisions.

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As first reported by The New York Times, an upside-down U.S. flag was spotted at the Alito home in Virginia, while a flag associated with conservative Christians was seen at the family vacation home in New Jersey.

Alito said in his letters to lawmakers that “a reasonable person who is not motivated by political or ideological considerations or a desire to affect the outcome of Supreme Court cases” would conclude that no recusal was required.

The court subsequently adopted a new ethics code in November, which has itself attracted criticism in large part because justices themselves get the final word on how to apply it.

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