Justices to make rare appearance before appropriators

Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan will testify about high court’s budget

Elena Kagan, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, walks through Statuary Hall to the House chamber for President Donald Trump's State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress in the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Two Supreme Court justices plan to testify before Congress next week about the high court’s budget for the first time in four years, amid legislative efforts to overhaul ethics and transparency policies of the judicial branch.

Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan are set to appear at a public hearing Thursday before the House Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee. Alito was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006 and Kagan was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010.

Such hearings, sans the formal black robes, offer a rare glimpse into the interactions between the legislative and judicial branches. And it gives lawmakers a chance to ask about the Supreme Court’s stances on court security, cameras in the courtroom or recusals for financial conflicts.

For the last three years, lawmakers met with justices behind closed doors for a more casual conversation. Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley, who became subcommittee chairman this year when Democrats won control of the House, said last year that he thinks the justices should testify before Congress every year.

“Until 2016, when the annual Supreme Court budget hearing went from video-streamed committee room to private high court conference room, this event had been one of the few times all year that Americans could see the justices live and in living color,” said Gabe Roth, the executive director of the nonpartisan group Fix the Court that advocates accountability and transparency.

The last justices to testify at a budget hearing, in 2015, were Stephen G. Breyer and Anthony M. Kennedy, who left the court last year. Since then, there has been a rash of new legislative, social and safety concerns about the Supreme Court and federal courts, including the judicial branch’s response to the #MeToo movement and threats to justices.

The Democrats’ sweeping signature legislative push on ethics and elections, HR 1, would create a formal ethics code for Supreme Court justices, who are exempt from the code of conduct for federal judges. So would two stand-alone bills.

In September, the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee passed by voice vote a bill that would increase transparency at the court, including same-day online audio streaming for the Supreme Court and public disclosure of reasons a justice recuses from a case.

The Supreme Court received $84.7 million in discretionary spending for salaries and expenses in the fiscal 2019 omnibus signed last month.

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