“When Congress seeks information needed for intelligent legislative action, it unquestionably is the duty of all citizens to cooperate.” Trump v. Mazars, 140 S.Ct. 2019, 2036 (2020) (internal quotations omitted). So spoke the Supreme Court in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts less than three years ago. Mazars involved congressional subpoenas for the financial records of then-President Trump, and the Court’s emphasis of the word all underscored the fact that the Constitution recognizes no super-citizens who are above this legal duty, not even the sitting president.
The chief justice seemed to be singing a different tune, however, when he responded this week to an invitation from Senator Durbin, chair of the Judiciary Committee, for Roberts or another justice of his choosing “to testify at a public hearing regarding the ethical rules that govern the Justices of the Supreme Court and potential reforms to those rules.”
Roberts informs Durbin that he “must respectfully decline” the invitation to testify. He explains that “[t]estimony 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.” He notes that “[t]he Supreme Court Library compilation of ‘Justices Testifying Before Congress in Matters Other Than Appropriations or Nominations’ has identified only two prior instances—Chief Justice Taft in 1921 and Chief Justice Hughes in 1935.” Furthermore, these and other instances of chief justices testifying before congressional committees involved only “routine matters of judicial administration” or similar “mundane” topics. Finally, Roberts cites the fact that “[c]ongressional testimony from the head of the Executive Branch is likewise infrequent,” pointing out that “no President has ever testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and only three Presidents (in 1862, 1919, and 1974) have testified before any Congressional committee.”
Respectfully, this is an extremely silly argument. To begin with, it reads like a parody of how lawyers cherry pick precedents to support their arguments. Why does it matter how many times the “chief justice” (as opposed to any justice or even any Article III judge) has testified before “the Senate Judiciary Committee” in particular about matters other than appropriations or nominations? How is that more illuminating than, say, whether a justice named Roberts has previously testified in the month of May?