Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Senate confusion, Republican fury as Dems hold out on SCOTUS ethics subpoenas

GOP lawmakers raged against Democrats’ plans to issue legal summonses to a pair of influential conservatives central to their probe into unethical conduct at the high court.

WASHINGTON (CN) — It was a clear fall morning on Capitol Hill, but a thick blanket of fog descended on the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday as Democrats abruptly walked out of a meeting during which they planned to vote on a pair of controversial subpoenas for figures central to their Supreme Court ethics investigation.

The panel was scheduled to vote on two sets of legal summonses — one for billionaire real estate developer Harlan Crow and one for conservative legal activist Leonard Leo. Democrats have for months demanded the two men turn over information related to gifts and other hospitality they reportedly provided to Supreme Court justices.

Despite Democrats’ insistence that they subpoena Crow and Leo, the committee abruptly adjourned Thursday morning before lawmakers could even begin debate.

The panel gaveled out just seconds after approving a pair of controversial circuit court nominees on tight, party-line votes.

An aide for Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic chair of the Judiciary Committee, said afterward that the panel would not meet again Thursday to consider the subpoenas. Aides and lawmakers told reporters the committee needed time to review more than 80 Republican amendments offered to the proposed action.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Durbin said the subpoena vote was postponed due to “scheduling issues.”

“Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats remain united in our effort to implement an enforceable code of conduct for Supreme Court justices,” the statement read.

South Carolina Senator Linsdey Graham, the panel’s Republican ranking member, warned during opening remarks that the GOP would make the subpoena vote as painful as possible.

“You’ve opened up Pandora’s Box, and you’ll get to look into it,” he said. “It’s not very pretty.”

Graham threatened to torpedo the Judiciary Committee’s already flimsy air of bipartisan cooperation over the proposed subpoenas.

“You’re gonna have a complete shitshow,” he seethed, “but that’s what you want, and that’s what you’re gonna get.”

Things certainly appeared to be playing out that way — as of Thursday afternoon the committee has not rescheduled a vote on the proposed subpoenas.

Democrats said that they needed time to review the scores of GOP amendments.

“Pick,” Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told Courthouse News when asked which amendments gave lawmakers pause.

Despite Durbin’s explanation, some Democrats were still in the dark on the chairman’s political calculus.

"I'm not sure why the chairman decided to postpone," Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal said. He noted that the committee regularly votes on amendments in session.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker shrugged in confusion when asked about the panel’s abrupt pause. “You’re asking me if I know what’s going on?” he quipped.

Republicans, meanwhile, were happy to have delayed the subpoena vote.

“Hopefully they’ve come to their senses," Texas Senator John Cornyn told reporters. “I’m glad they decided to hit the brakes.”

Louisiana Senator John Kennedy speculated that Democrats didn’t have the votes to clear the proposed subpoenas.

Durbin has positioned the subpoenas as a last resort, arguing that Crow and Leo have resisted Democrats’ probe into what they frame as unethical conduct by Supreme Court justices.

“This should concern all of us,” he said Thursday. “Defending Congress's legislative oversight authority should transcend partisanship to protect Congress's authority and advance the committee's efforts to implement an enforceable code of conduct for the Supreme Court.”

Lawmakers have been investigating reports of ethical misconduct at the high court since the spring, when news broke that real estate mogul Crow had taken Justice Clarence Thomas on luxury vacations that went unreported by the jurist.

Those revelations heralded a steady stream of reports implicating other high court justices in questionable conduct, including Justice Samuel Alito and Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Leo and Crow have so far rejected information requests from the Judiciary Committee, arguing that Congress does not have constitutional authority to regulate the Supreme Court and contending that lawmakers have no legislative grounds to demand information.

The committee in June narrowly approved a measure authored by Senator Whitehouse that, if made law, would force the high court to draft a formal code of ethical standards in the public eye. The Supreme Court has rules governing financial disclosure but none mandating ethical conduct.

Whitehouse’s measure would also establish a judicial review board that would handle allegations of ethical misconduct by the justices.

Follow @BenjaminSWeiss
Categories / Courts, Government, National, Politics

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.