U.S. Supreme Court chief declines to discuss Alito flag uproar, ethics with Senate Dems

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts announces the results of the vote on the second article of impeachment during impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol on February 5, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Senate Television via Getty Images)

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U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told leading Democrats on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday he will not meet with them to discuss the court’s code of ethics, following revelations of displays of politically oriented flags at the homes of Justice Samuel Alito.

Individual justices will continue to decide their own recusals, Roberts wrote to Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois, and Subcommittee on the Federal Courts Chair Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, in a letter obtained by States Newsroom.

Durbin and Whitehouse had asked Roberts a week earlier to force Alito to recuse himself from upcoming decisions related to the 2020 election and to meet to discuss proposals to strengthen Supreme Court ethics rules.

“I must respectfully decline your request for a meeting,” Roberts wrote in the two-paragraph letter dated Thursday. “Separation of powers concerns and the importance of preserving judicial independence counsel against such appearances.”

Justices rarely meet with legislators, particularly those who have expressed an interest in matters before the court, Roberts wrote.

Meeting with members of only one party would be especially problematic, he said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Durbin rejected Roberts’ reasoning, saying Durbin only sought to address the lack of public confidence in the court.

“The Chief Justice is wrong to say that simply meeting with members of Congress to discuss the Supreme Court’s ethics crisis threatens the separation of powers or judicial independence,” the spokesperson wrote.

“Due to the Chief Justice’s intransigence, Chair Durbin will continue his efforts to pass legislation establishing an enforceable code of conduct for all nine Supreme Court justices — regardless of which President appointed them.”

Durbin and Whitehouse wrote to Roberts on May 23, asking him “to immediately take appropriate steps to ensure that Justice Alito will recuse himself in any cases related to the 2020 presidential election and January 6th attack on the Capitol.”

Flags at two Alito homes appeared to promote former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that his loss in the 2020 election was the result of a rigged election. That claim spurred the Jan. 6, 2021, attack.

A May 22 New York Times report documented that a flag at Alito’s Virginia home flew upside down in the weeks following the 2020 election. Alito told the Times that his wife displayed that flag in reaction to a neighborhood dispute.

A New Jersey vacation home belonging to the Alitos was photographed in the summer of 2023 flying an “Appeal to Heaven” flag, which bears that slogan above a simple pine tree design. The second flag was also first reported in the New York Times.

Both flags were carried by rioters during the Capitol attack, raising questions for Durbin and Whitehouse about Alito’s ability to be objective in cases concerning former President Donald Trump’s role in the attack.

The court heard oral arguments last month in a case about whether presidential immunity shielded Trump from prosecution on federal charges he sought to overturn the legitimate election results.

The Democratic senators specified that the case was one from which Alito should recuse himself.

Roberts’ letter said Alito had written to the committee himself on that issue. That letter was not immediately available Thursday.

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