Oct 30, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Senate Dems plan to subpoena conservative justices' billionaire patrons

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Photo: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday announced plans to vote to subpoena a pair of billionaires who reportedly gave lavish gifts to Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

Why it matters: It's a major escalation of the panel's investigation into Supreme Court ethics as Democratic senators push legislation to strengthen disclosure requirements and create a judicial code of conduct.

Driving the news: Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in a statement that they plan to subpoena billionaires Harlan Crow and Robin Arkley, as well as conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo.

  • "[I]t is imperative that we understand the full extent of how people with interests before the Court are able to use undisclosed gifts to gain private access to the justices," the senators said.
  • Reports this year from nonprofit news organization ProPublica revealed years worth of luxury trips and other gifts Crow provided to Thomas. The outlet also reported that Arkley partially funded Alito's attendance on a luxury fishing trip organized by Leo.

The backdrop: The committee asked Crow in May for itemized lists of gifts, travel and lodging he provided to Thomas, but Crow's lawyers responded that they "do not believe the Committee has the authority to investigate Mr. Crow's personal friendship with Justice Thomas."

  • After months of back and forth, Crow's team proposed providing some of the information from the last five years, but Senate Democrats rejected the offer as an inadequate compromise.
  • The panel sent similar letters to Arkley, Leo and billionaire Paul Singer, who reportedly flew Alito to the 2008 fishing trip.
  • Leo responded with a letter saying the committee "is not entitled to the personal information it seeks" and declining to cooperate.

The other side: Crow's office, in a statement, blasted his subpoena as "unnecessary, partisan, and politically motivated" despite "Mr. Crow's good faith efforts at a reasonable compromise that respects both sides."

  • "Mr. Crow, a private citizen, won't be bullied by threats from politicians. However, as previously conveyed to the Committee, we remain committed to respectful cooperation and a fair resolution."
  • Leo said in a statement: "I will not bow to the vile and disgusting liberal McCarthyism that seeks to destroy the Supreme Court simply because it follows the Constitution rather than their political agenda."

Between the lines: The subpoenas are aimed in part on building pressure on Chief Justice John Roberts to institute a binding code of conduct, which he has so far refused to do.

  • "The Chief Justice could fix this problem today and adopt a binding code of conduct.  As long as he refuses to act, the Judiciary Committee will," Durbin and Whitehouse said.

What's next: The vote could come as soon as Nov. 9, a committee aide told Axios.

  • Democrats hold a majority on the panel and could authorize the subpoenas unilaterally.

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