Wednesday, September 27, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, September 27, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Senate hints at subpoena for megadonor Crow amid SCOTUS ethics probe

The real estate magnate has so far resisted the investigation of his ties to Justice Clarence Thomas, framing any scrutiny as unconstitutional.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Senate Democrats may try to haul Harlan Crow in front of Congress in the coming months as they move ahead with an inquiry into the conservative megadonor’s close personal relationship with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Reports of the real estate developer’s hospitality and gifts to Thomas have enraged lawmakers on the left, who paint the issue as a symptom of lax ethical standards in the nation’s highest court compared with the rest of the federal judiciary. Crow’s relationship with Thomas — which both men insist amounts only to friendship — has nonetheless prompted Democrats to introduce legislation that would compel the Supreme Court to adopt a formal code of ethical standards.

Crow faces his own investigation, with Democrats saying that it will help inform their Supreme Court ethics bill. Lawmakers in May pressed the property magnate for information on gifts or other services he has provided to Thomas or other high court jurists, a probe that Crow has now rebuffed for the second time.

Speaking out Tuesday, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who chairs the judiciary panel, blasted Crow’s latest rebuke as a “clear, unwarranted refusal to cooperate with legitimate requests for information from this Committee.”

While the text of Crow’s latest letter wasn’t immediately available, a similar letter sent to the panel last month framed Democrats’ investigation as unconstitutional. Crow’s counsel Michael Bopp claimed in the letter that lawmakers had not provided legitimate legislative grounds to go after the real estate developer and that any attempt to pass a bill constraining the Supreme Court would violate constitutional separation of powers.

Crow’s attorney also argued that the mogul’s relationship with Justice Thomas was public information and details of transactions with the jurist would not meaningfully aid any investigation.

Durbin, alongside Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, said Tuesday that he wasn’t satisfied.

“When asked to produce information about these gifts to inform Congress’s efforts to increase transparency and accountability at the Supreme Court, Crow puts forward a dangerous, undemocratic argument: that an individual can withhold information from Congress based on what he believes is in the best interest of the Supreme Court,” the Illinois Democrat wrote.

Durbin repeated his claim that the judiciary panel has established authority to conduct oversight on the high court, including the power to pass legislation such as a mandated ethics code. The lawmaker also flung the door open to the possibility that the panel could issue a subpoena to Crow, a legal order compelling him to testify before Congress.

“All options are on the table moving forward,” Durbin wrote.

A spokesperson for the Illinois senator’s office did not immediately return a request for comment on whether he would prepare a subpoena for Crow — but other lawmakers are already kicking around such action.

Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, who chairs the Senate Committee on Finance, said Tuesday that he is considering his options for forcing Crow to respond to his panel’s own investigation into the real estate magnate’s financial dealings. Wyden listed a subpoena as one possible course of action.

“Far too often, efforts to investigate real life tax practices of the ultra-wealthy and powerful end with this kind of vague, carefully-worded assurance that everything is on the level,” Wyden said in a statement. “That’s simply not good enough.”

Senate Democrats on the Judiciary Committee have demanded that Crow submit an itemized list of all gifts and payments valued at over $415 that he has ever provided to any Supreme Court justice or a member of their family. Responding to reports that Justice Thomas had stayed at Crow’s 105-acre compound in upstate New York and traveled on the real estate developer’s private jet and yacht, lawmakers also requested information from holding companies in charge of those assets.

After the initial news of Crow’s relationship with Justice Thomas broke in April, the jurist issued a rare public statement in which he denied wrongdoing — arguing that he had consulted with court officials and other justices who had advised him that a friend’s hospitality would not need to be disclosed. Although the Supreme Court has no formal code of ethics, it does have financial disclosure guidelines, which some court experts believe Thomas may have violated.

The renewed push from lawmakers to force the Supreme Court into an ethical arrangement has made little headway. Chief Justice John Roberts has long held that the high court needs no such boundaries.

Roberts in April sent Durbin a statement of ethics principles, signed by all nine justices, that he said should suffice as a commitment to keep things above board. The chief justice has pointed to a 2011 year-end report from the Supreme Court, which concluded that it was under no obligation to adopt a set of ethical standards similar to those binding lower courts.

Follow @@BenjaminSWeiss
Categories / Government, National, Politics

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.