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Senate Democrats vote to subpoena Harlan Crow, Leonard Leo in Supreme Court ethics probe as GOP storms out

WASHINGTON − Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to subpoena a wealthy donor and a legal activist with ties to conservative Supreme Court justices after partisan bickering ended with Republicans storming out of the hearing as the final vote was tallied.

Republicans on the panel slammed the move as political theater and accused the 11 Democrats of violating committee rules.

Democrats requested details of gifts, transportation, lodging, travel and private club access provided to justices by billionaire GOP donor Harlan Crow that appear to have been tied in some cases to conservative legal activist Leonard Leo. They moved forward with subpoenas Thursday after concluding neither Crow nor Leo were willing to voluntarily provide the information they had been seeking.

Crow, a Texas-based real estate developer, has been closely linked to Justice Clarence Thomas after news reports showed he had provided the justice with international luxury trips, paid his grand-nephew's private school tuition, and purchased property from Thomas' family. Leo, co-chairman of the Federalist Society, has been instrumental in efforts to elevate conservative judges to the federal courts.

"Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats' goal all along has been to ensure that, like all other federal judges, Supreme Court justices are bound by an enforceable code of conduct," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the committee's chairman.

"Today's vote to issue subpoenas to Harlan Crow and Leonard Leo − two individuals who have refused to comply with this Committee’s legitimate oversight requests for months and are at the center of the Supreme Court’s ethical crisis − furthers that goal," Dubin said.

Lindsay Graham: 'An effort to destroy this court'

Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing regarding Supreme Court ethics reform on May 2, 2023.
Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing regarding Supreme Court ethics reform on May 2, 2023.

Republicans have for months framed the attention on ethics at the Supreme Court as a partisan response to the court's conservative majority.

"This is garbage," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top-ranking Republican on the committee. "This is about an ongoing effort to destroy this court."

Leo also shot back at the vote.

"Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats have been destroying the Supreme Court; now they are destroying the Senate," Leo said in a statement. "I will not cooperate with this unlawful campaign of political retribution."

In a statement, Crow described the subpoena the committee authorized as "invalid" and said the move "further demonstrates the unlawful and partisan nature of this investigation." The statement said that Crow would "engage with the committee in good faith" despite what it described as the "unenforceability of the subpoena."

"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," the statement read.

Yachts, private jets, and pricey vacations

The subpoena vote was first scheduled weeks ago, but was delayed after Republicans planned to force votes on subpoenas of their own. Since then, and after months of criticism, the Supreme Court court this month adopted a code of conduct for the first time in its history.

Crow was the focus of a series of investigative reports from the news outlet ProPublica detailing the Texas real estate mogul's decades long relationship with Thomas marked by generous gifts and travel. Those included paying for Thomas relative's private school tuition, buying property from Thomas and his family, and funding multiple trips on yachts and private jets.

Leo is co-chairman of the conservative Federalist Society. He reportedly funneled tens of thousands of dollars to Thomas' wife Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, arranged gifts for the justices, and has had significant influence in shaping the Supreme Court's current 6-3 conservative majority.

Durbin earlier announced that Democrats would abandon plans to subpoena a third person − Robin Arkley, a California businessman who reportedly provided a luxury Alaskan fishing trip lodge for Alito in 2008.

By contrast, Leo has "refused to cooperate in any way," Durbin said earlier, and Crow has made "only a limited and insufficient offer" of information.

Lawyers for Leo and Crow have argued that the requests inappropriately seek too much private information, questioned Congress' authority to investigate the Supreme Court, and have said the inquiry is politically motivated. Senate Republicans have echoed those complaints.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, left and his wife Virginia Thomas, right, leave the the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington after attending funeral services of the late Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, on Feb. 20, 2016.
Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, left and his wife Virginia Thomas, right, leave the the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington after attending funeral services of the late Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, on Feb. 20, 2016.

Defending Clarence Thomas

Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said recently that Democrats are trying to "delegitimize not just Clarence Thomas, but the court in general."

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., argued Democrats have ignored potential ethics violations by other justices, such as reports that aides to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a member of the court's liberal wing, pushed colleges and a library to order copies of her books. Blackburn has sought to subpoena Sotomayor's staff, she said.

"This is a sad day in the history of the prestigious Judiciary Committee and further underscores the left's two tiers of justice crusade," Blackburn said. "Senate Democrats have long been trying to undermine the Supreme Court and Justice Clarence Thomas, but want to ignore Justice Sotomayor allegedly using her taxpayer-funded staff to coordinate speaking engagements in exchange for selling and promoting thousands of her books."

The committee's Democrats say the information is needed to inform legislation to improve Supreme Court ethics rules. In July, the committee approved a bill along party lines that would require the court to adopt a code of ethics similar to those already in place for lower federal court judges and other government officials.

The Judiciary Committee's bill seems unlikely to become law given ardent GOP opposition. It has not yet come up for a vote in the Senate, and − even if it passed − would struggle to survive the Republican-controlled House.

In the meantime, the Supreme Court acted on its own this month by announcing it would honor a code of conduct for the first time in its 234-year history. The code, which the court said was agreed to by all nine justices, encourages justices to recuse from a pending case if they have "a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party."

But the code drew swift criticism from ethics watchdogs, in part because it includes no enforcement mechanism and relies on the justices to police themselves.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Senate Democrats subpoena Crow, Leo in Supreme Court ethics probe