Subpoena vote in Supreme Court ethics probe postponed

November 10, 2023

The Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee abruptly adjourned a meeting Thursday without holding a vote on subpoenas amid a blow-up with Republican members. 

Committee Democrats have been seeking to subpoena conservative political donors Harlan Crow and Robin Arkley II, and conservative activist Leonard Leo on their funding luxury travel and other freebies for Supreme Court Justices.

But on Thursday, committee Chair Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) gaveled out after Republicans made clear they would also call for subpoena votes on numerous Democratic officials and others in protest against subpoenaing Crow, Arkley and Leo. 

The meeting adjourned after it became clear that the committee was facing a deluge of amdendments and hours of debate.

“I’m hopeful that maybe we will not get engaged in the subpoena wars,” said ranking Republican on the Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Crow’s role as a benefactor of Justice Clarence Thomas has come under scrutiny over in recent months due to extensive investigative reporting by ProPublica, starting in April.

According to the the non-profit news outlet, Thomas had not disclosed hundreds of thousands of dollars in luxury vacations, real estate dealings and high-priced boarding school fees for his grandnephew from billionaire Crow.

Arkley and Leo, a Federalist Society executive who pressed former President Trump to move the Supreme Court farther to the right, helped arrange a private jet trip to Alaska for Justice Samuel Alito in 2008. 

According to ProPublica, Alito’s Alaskan vacation also included a stay “at a luxury fishing lodge that charged more than $1,000 a day,” hosted by “hedge fund billionaire” Paul Singer—none of which Alito disclosed at the time.

Durbin on Thursday vowed to continue efforts to authorize subpoenas in the near future. “The highest court in the land cannot have the lowest ethical standards,” the committee Chair said.

For months, Durbin has warned Chief Justice John Roberts to end the Supreme Court’s practice of being virtually the only court in the U.S. operating without a formal code of ethics, or Congress will create a code for it. The committee Chair’s assertions come at a time when the behavior of not just Thomas and other conservative Supreme Court Justices but liberal Justices as well have come under ethics scrutiny. 

But Roberts has pushed back, insisting that he’s “committed” to ensuring the nine Justices “adhere to the highest standards of conduct” and that they meet ethical obligations “that are consistent with our status as an independent branch of government under the Constitution’s separation of powers.”

In July, the Judiciary panel approved a bill that would set ethics rules for the Court, as well as a process to enforce them. It passed along party lines in the Democratic-majority committee, and Senate Republicans have united to “destroy” it in the full chamber. 

The Supreme Court began its latest term earlier last month under record disapproval ratings. According to a polling average in October from ABC News’ polling tracker 538, only 38% of Americans approve of the job the Supreme Court is doing while 54% disapprove. 

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