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Senate Judiciary Committee authorizes subpoenas for Harlan Crow and Leonard Leo in Supreme Court ethics probe

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Washington — Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to issue subpoenas to GOP megadonor Harlan Crow and conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo on Thursday, marking a new front in the panel's investigation into the ethics practices at the Supreme Court.

The subpoenas were approved following a contentious meeting in which Republicans accused their Democratic colleagues of attempting to undermine the Supreme Court by targeting private citizens. The committee's GOP members walked out of the room while the vote took place, with only Sen. Lindsey Graham, the panel's top Republican, remaining. All 11 Democrats voted to authorize the subpoenas.

Lawmakers are seeking documents from Crow and Leo about gifts, trips and lodging provided to any member of the high court. Their involvement in luxury trips provided to Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito were revealed in reports this year.

"Their attempts to thwart the legitimate oversight efforts of Congress should concern all of us," Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Dick Durbin said before the vote on the subpoenas. "As I've said before, I do not seek this authorization lightly and I do not ask for it often. But to protect Congress authority and advance the committee's efforts to implement an enforceable code of conduct for the Supreme Court, it is necessary to seek authorization to pursue compulsory process with respect to Mr. Leo and Mr. Crow."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Durbin speaks as ranking member Lindsey Graham listens during a committee meeting on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Durbin speaks as ranking member Lindsey Graham listens during a committee meeting on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The Illinois Democrat called Crow and Leo "central players" in the ethics challenges at the Supreme Court.

Graham accused Democrats of attacking the integrity of the court, which now has a 6-3 conservative majority, following decisions on abortion, gun rights and affirmative action. He said the investigation involving Leo and Crow is "politically motivated" and could lead senators to pursue subpoenas for private citizens they dislike.

"This is about an ongoing effort to destroy this court. To destroy Clarence Thomas' reputation. To pack the court. To get your way. To make sure the Supreme Court that exists today can't function," Graham said of Democrats' efforts.

Democrats on the panel had also planned to seek approval of a subpoena to a third Republican donor, Robin Arkley II, but Durbin dropped the demand earlier this month after Arkley turned over information to the committee.

Following the vote, a statement from Crow's office accused committee Democrats of violating the panel's rules to issue the subpoena, which it called "invalid" and unenforceable. The statement said Crow has been and remains willing to engage with the committee "in good faith," and has offered information in response to the Democrats' requests.

"Committee Democrats have made intrusive demands of a private citizen that far exceed any reasonable standard and to this date have not explained why this request is necessary to craft legislation, particularly now that the Committee has completed its work on ethics legislation. Still, Mr. Crow maintains his readiness to discuss the matter further with the Committee," the office said.

Leo criticized Democrats on the panel, saying in a statement that they "have been destroying the Supreme Court; now they are destroying the Senate. I will not cooperate with this unlawful campaign of political retribution."

Ethics at the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is seen in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 9, 2023.
The Supreme Court is seen in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 9, 2023. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

The Judiciary Committee began its investigation into the ethics policies at the Supreme Court this spring in response to a series of reports from the investigative news outlet ProPublica detailing trips Thomas took aboard Crow's private plane and yacht, and luxury vacations the justice accepted from Crow, a billionaire real estate developer, over their 25-year friendship.

Thomas did not disclose the travel on his annual financial disclosure forms, but said in response to the revelations that he did not believe he had to do so under exemptions for personal hospitality.

Alito, meanwhile, traveled to Alaska for a luxury fishing trip in 2008 aboard a private jet provided by GOP donor Paul Singer, and accepted lodging from Arkley, the owner of a California mortgage company. Alito also did not disclose the trip, but refuted that it should have been reported, also citing exceptions for personal hospitality. 

Following the reports of Thomas and Alito's trips, the Judiciary Committee requested information from Crow, Leo and Arkley. Leo has repeatedly declined the committee's request, and his lawyer told the panel in a letter Oct. 19 that its inquiry lacked a valid legislative purpose. Leo, who has played a crucial role in the confirmations of several Supreme Court justices, also accused the committee's Democratic majority of engaging in political retaliation.

Crow offered to provide the Judiciary Committee with limited information, though it did not satisfy Senate Democrats.

Republicans have defended Thomas and Alito and accused Democrats of unfairly focusing on them while ignoring revelations from the Associated Press that Justice Sonia Sotomayor's court staff pushed public institutions to purchase her books, and that the justice declined to recuse herself from copyright cases before the court that involved her book publisher. Justice Neil Gorsuch also did not step aside in a case involving the publisher of his 2019 book.

Thomas' ties to Crow in particular created mounting pressure on the Supreme Court to adopt a binding code of ethics, and the Judiciary Committee advanced along party lines this summer legislation that would require the Supreme Court to adopt an enforceable set of ethics rules. The court announced earlier this month it had adopted for the first time a formal code of conduct, though it does not include an enforcement mechanism.

Implementation of the ethics policies came after several of the justices expressed support for a formal set of ethics policies. Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged in May that the court can do more to "adhere to the highest standards" of ethical conduct, and said the justices "are continuing to look at the things we can do to give practical effect to that commitment."

Justices Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett, too, expressed support for adopting a code, particularly as favorable opinions of the Supreme Court fell to historic lows.

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