Senate Democrats announced plans Monday to vote to subpoena a pair of wealthy conservatives and a judicial activist who have underwritten or organized lavish travel for some Supreme Court justices, a move that adds to the pressure on the high court to strengthen its ethics policies.
Senate Judiciary Committee leaders said they would vote as soon as Nov. 9 to authorize subpoenas for information from Texas billionaire Harlan Crow, a close friend and benefactor of Justice Clarence Thomas, and from Leonard Leo, the conservative judicial activist. Senate Democrats do not need the vote of any Republican on the committee to authorize the subpoenas. No separate vote by the full Senate is necessary.
Democratic lawmakers are seeking detailed information about the full extent of Crow’s gifts to Thomas. News reports about the justice’s failure over many years to report private jet travel, real estate deals and other gifts from Crow have prompted calls for the court to strengthen its ethics rules and for greater transparency about the justices’ potential conflicts and recusal decisions.
“By accepting these lavish, undisclosed gifts, the justices have enabled their wealthy benefactors and other individuals with business before the Court to gain private access to the justices while preventing public scrutiny of this conduct,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in the joint announcement. “It 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.”
Senate Democrats have backed legislation that would impose disclosure rules on the court that are as strict as those that apply to members of the House and the Senate. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has suggested the court would act on its own as an independent branch of government to demonstrate to the public that it adheres to the “highest standards of conduct.”
Three other justices — Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — have publicly stated in recent months that the court should or would adopt a formal ethics policy.
In May, Senate committee leaders asked Crow for an itemized list of gifts he has made to Thomas that are worth more than $415, which is the maximum value allowed for gifts to federal judges — including the justices — that are not disclosed. The lawmakers also sought a full accounting of the lodging and transportation Crow has provided to the justice and his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas. In response, Crow’s attorney sent a letter saying the committee had not identified a “valid legislative purpose” for its investigation and did not have the power to probe his personal friendship with the justice.
Through negotiations, Crow subsequently offered to provide the committee with responses to a subset of its requests, and only for the past five years, which the senators called inadequate.
Crow has said he never tried to influence Thomas’s decision-making on the court. Thomas has said he thought he did not need to disclose the free trips from a personal friend.
In a statement Monday, Crow’s office said he offered the committee extensive information “despite the serious constitutional and privacy concerns presented to the Committee, which were ignored and remain unaddressed.” Crow’s office asserted that the committee has already passed the legislation for which lawmakers say they need the requested information.
“It’s clear this is nothing more than a stunt aimed at undermining a sitting Supreme Court Justice for ideological and political purposes,” Crow’s office said.
Leo struck a defiant tone in a statement Monday night, saying he would 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.”
The committee said Monday that it would also vote to issue a subpoena to conservative donor Robin Arkley II. ProPublica reported that Arkley provided Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. with a free fishing trip to Alaska in 2008 that was organized by Leo. Alito has defended his decision not to disclose the trip in his annual financial report.
Federal ethics law requires top officials from all branches of government, including Supreme Court justices, to file annual disclosures listing investments, gifts and outside income. The justices are facing intense pressure from Democratic lawmakers and transparency advocates because they do not have an ethics policy that applies specifically to the nine justices.
“The Chief Justice could fix this problem today and adopt a binding code of conduct,” Durbin and Whitehouse added in their statement. “As long as he refuses to act, the Judiciary Committee will.”
Separately, the Senate Finance Committee released a report last week after an investigation into a loan Thomas received from a friend to buy a luxury Prevost Marathon motor coach in 1999, a transaction that was first reported by the New York Times. The committee’s Democratic staff said in the report that Thomas made some interest payments on the $267,230 loan, but that it was declared settled by his friend, Anthony Welters, in 2008 without Thomas repaying a substantial portion — or perhaps any — of the principal.