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Senate Judiciary delays votes on subpoenas over Supreme Court ethics

Chair Richard J. Durbin said ‘scheduling issues’ left the committee unable to complete the markup

Committee Chair Richard J. Durbin, left, speaks with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse during Senate Judiciary’s markup Thursday to consider an authorization for subpoenas relating to a Supreme Court ethics investigation.
Committee Chair Richard J. Durbin, left, speaks with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse during Senate Judiciary’s markup Thursday to consider an authorization for subpoenas relating to a Supreme Court ethics investigation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate Judiciary Committee abruptly adjourned Thursday without voting on whether to authorize subpoenas for a billionaire Republican donor and a conservative judicial activist as part of the panel’s probe into Supreme Court ethics.

Members of the Senate panel were set to vote Thursday on whether to authorize subpoenas for Republican donor Harlan Crow and Leonard Leo, co-chairman of the board of directors of the Federalist Society.

But shortly after voting on two judicial nominees, Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin adjourned the business meeting without giving a reason — a sharp turn less than an hour after he said the committee would be voting to authorize subpoenas. The Illinois Democrat later put out a statement saying the committee was unable to complete the markup because of “scheduling issues” but showed no signs of giving up on the effort.

“We will continue to pursue subpoena authorization for Harlan Crow and Leonard Leo — two individuals who have refused to comply with this Committee’s oversight requests for months,” Durbin said in the statement.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who is a sponsor of a bill that would require the Supreme Court to adopt a code of ethics, said the “gears got jammed” by Republican amendments.

Democrats still have the votes to approve the subpoena authorization, Whitehouse said, and that it is just a matter of timing and processing the “jam that the Republicans created with their amendment dump.”

The canceled vote is the latest wrinkle in a raging battle over the ethical standards for the Supreme Court. The court does not have a binding ethics code for the justices. Democrats have been looking into lavish gifts provided to members of the nation’s highest court.

Democrats contend they exhausted other efforts to get information from the men related to Supreme Court ethics. Stronger action, the lawmakers argue, is needed to investigate undisclosed gifts and their influence on the justices.

Meanwhile, the idea of a subpoena has received ardent Republican opposition. Republicans describe the subpoena authorization as an unfair attack that seeks to undermine a conservative Supreme Court that issues decisions with which Democrats disagree.

On Thursday, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, expressed perplexity at the subpoena push and said Democrats have picked a fight.

“I promise you everything that was working well with the committee is now in jeopardy,” Graham said during the business meeting Thursday.

During his opening remarks, Durbin described Crow and Leo as “central players” in the ethics challenge facing the nation’s highest court and said the need for a subpoena clearly falls within prior committee precedent. He has said Crow refused to negotiate beyond an insufficient offer to provide some information.

“Their baseless refusal to respond to the committee’s valid inquiries prevent us from understanding the full scope of this issue. As chair of this committee, I cannot allow them to thwart congressional authority,” Durbin said.

The committee previously had announced plans to vote to authorize a subpoena for Robin Arkley II, but Durbin said Thursday that the Republican donor had cooperated enough in the past week that a subpoena was no longer needed.

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.

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