Senate Judiciary Committee members clashed Thursday over plans to subpoena two Republican donors and a conservative judicial activist with ties to Supreme Court justices, part of a probe into lavish gifts provided to members of the nation’s highest court.
The panel won’t vote until at least next week on whether to issue subpoenas to Harlan Crow and Robin Arkley II, Republican donors, and Leonard Leo, co-chairman of the board of directors of the Federalist Society.
But senators at a committee meeting Thursday did not miss an opportunity to foreshadow a fight over that vote and launch broadsides over the subpoenas.
Democrats contend they exhausted other efforts to get information from the trio related to Supreme Court ethics, and stronger action is needed to investigate undisclosed gifts and their influence on the justices.
Republicans described the move as an unfair attack that seeks to undermine a conservative Supreme Court that issues decisions Democrats disagree with.
The partisan collision was the latest in a raging debate over the ethical standards for the Supreme Court, which does not have a binding ethics code for the justices.
Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said Leo and Arkley have stonewalled the committee’s attempts to get information voluntarily, while Crow refused to negotiate beyond an offer that was “completely insufficient.”
The committee cannot allow the three people to thwart the panel’s constitutional authority and the Senate’s “institutional prerogatives,” Durbin said.
“They are not bit players in this crisis,” Durbin said. “And the information they hold is critical to understanding how individuals and groups with business before the court gained private access to the justices.”
Republicans said the push from Democrats was a distraction from the failings of the Biden administration at the southern border and indicated that the move would affect committee relations down the road.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the panel, expressed perplexity at the subpoena push. Democrats are moving forward knowing there would be staunch Republican opposition and they would not be able to get 60 votes to enforce the subpoenas in court, he said.
“So from here on out, this committee is going to operate differently,” Graham said. “Starting next Thursday, it’s going to be harder, not easier. This is a fight you want, you gonna get it.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said during the meeting that the subpoena push fits in with Democrats’ push to “cast doubt on this fundamental independent branch of government.”
Sen. Tom Cotton denounced Democratic arguments, and said the entire episode was about continuing a “brazen and outrageous campaign” against the Supreme Court because Democrats take issue with the high court’s rulings.
“Y’all ought to be ashamed of yourself. Because you’re the ones who always profess how you’re defending our democracy,” the Arkansas Republican said. “You’re the ones undermining our democracy.”
Durbin, when asked after the hearing about enforcing the subpoenas in court, responded: “You’re several steps ahead.”
Crow’s office, in a statement provided Thursday, called the subpoena “a stunt” and said they “remain committed to respectful cooperation and a fair resolution.”
“Mr. Crow, a private citizen, won’t be bullied by threats from politicians,” the office said.
Democratic senators have pointed to reporting from ProPublica that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas did not disclose that he went on international vacations and received free flights on a private jet from Crow.
The news outlet has also reported that Crow bought property from Thomas where Thomas’ mother still lives and paid for a relative’s education at a private school when Thomas served as the child’s legal guardian.
Democrats, citing ProPublica reporting, say Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. accepted a luxury Alaskan fishing vacation with Arkley and the vacation was attended by Leo.