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Democrats seek list of gifts, trips given to Clarence Thomas from GOP donor Harlan Crow

Justice Thomas faces ethics questions
Ethics questions surrounding Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas 05:24

Washington — Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are pushing Republican donor and real estate magnate Harlan Crow to provide a full accounting of the gifts, trips and travel accommodations he has given to Justice Clarence Thomas and any other members of the Supreme Court.

The letter from the 11 members of the Judiciary panel, led by Chairman Dick Durbin, directs Crow to provide the committee with itemized lists of all gifts worth more than $415, real estate transactions, and transportation or lodging given to Supreme Court justices or their family members, as well as a list of the occasions when Crow provided any of the justices with entrance to any private, members-only clubs.

In addition to Crow, Senate Democrats sent letters to the entities that own Crow's private yacht, called the Michaela Rose, plane and private lakeside resort in the Adirondacks, known as Camp Topridge. The senators want the full itinerary for all travel Thomas or any other justices took on the yacht and jet, as well as a list of all guests whose trips overlapped with the justice's.

"The appearance of special access to the Justices — that is not available to all Americans — is corrosive to the legitimacy of the Court because, at minimum, it creates an appearance of undue influence that undermines the public's trust in the Court's impartiality," they wrote in the letters.

The Judiciary Committee Democrats said the information they are seeking about the gifts, travel and accommodations that Thomas received will help "clarify the scope of ethical concerns" that future legislation should confront.

"Maintaining faith in the impartiality of the federal judiciary is a necessary prerequisite for preserving the rule of law," they wrote. "In the absence of action by the Supreme Court to address shortcomings in its ethical standards and practices, Congress must act to restore faith in the Court by passing legislation that addresses those shortcomings."

It's unlikely Crow will provide the requested information to the Judiciary panel, as his lawyer rebuffed a similar request Sen. Ron Wyden, head of the Senate Finance Committee, made in April to see whether Crow's gifts to Thomas complied with all relevant federal tax and ethics laws.

Wyden sought a detailed list of all flights Thomas took on Crow's private jets, information about the justice's trips aboard his yacht, a list of gifts valued at more than $1,000 given to Thomas since he joined the Supreme Court and details about the three Georgia properties Crow purchased from the justice and his relatives.

But Michael Bopp, Crow's lawyer, told Wyden in a letter Monday that his inquiry "appears to be a component of a broader campaign against Justice Thomas and, now, Mr. Crow, rather than an investigation that furthers a valid legislative purpose." He also claimed the committee's examination raises separation of powers concerns, given that its target is a Supreme Court justice.

"The Committee's powers to investigate are not unlimited. Indeed, the Committee must have a legitimate legislative purpose for any inquiry, and the scope of the inquiry must be reasonably related to that purpose," Bopp wrote. "Moreover, issues that implicate the separation of powers require a heightened showing. The Committee's letter meets none of those standards here." 

In response to the letter from Crow's lawyer, Wyden said he plans to discuss with Finance Committee members "how best to compel answers" to his questions, including by using "any of the tools" at the committee's disposal.

"The assertion that the Finance Committee lacks a legislative basis for an investigation of the abuse of gift taxes by the wealthy is simply preposterous," Wyden said in a statement. "In fact Mr. Crow takes this position to an even more absurd level. He implies that the specter of public corruption created by his own unreported gifts to Justice Thomas somehow insulates the details of those gifts from Congressional investigation. This argument is, on its face, a joke."

Senate Democrats have turned their attention to the Supreme Court's ethics standards in response to a steady stream of revelations about Thomas' relationship with Crow. A series of reports from the news outlet ProPublica detailed the gifts, luxury travel and financial arrangements Thomas has benefited from during his 25-year friendship with Crow. The latest investigation from the news organization found that Crow paid for two years of tuition at private schools for Thomas' grandnephew, which the justice did not disclose on financial disclosure forms. 

Durbin invited Chief Justice John Roberts to testify before the committee last week about the ethics guidelines that the justices follow. Roberts declined to appear and instead sent Durbin a letter that included a three-page "Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices" signed by the nine justices.

The statement, though, has not quelled Democrats' concerns about the Supreme Court, and they have warned that they could take legislative action to strengthen the ethical rules that govern the justices.

Republicans, meanwhile, have defended Thomas and instead have claimed the focus on his conduct is part of a campaign to delegitimize the Supreme Court after controversial rulings on abortion, the Second Amendment and climate change.

"We reject this manufactured 'ethics crisis' at the Supreme Court as a ploy to further Democrats' efforts to undermine public confidence and change the makeup of the court," 13 GOP senators wrote to Wyden on Monday. "It is clear to us that Democrats are simply enraged that the court is no longer acting as a super legislature to implement progressive policies. This anger has not manifested itself in baseless smears toward the justices."

The Republicans said there is "nothing wrong" with Thomas' friendship and "occasional travel" with Crow.

"These attacks on the Supreme Court and the justices must end," they wrote. "They are undermining the rule of law, endangering the security of the justices and their families, and inflicting incalculable damage on our country."

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