After a combative two-hour hearing, the Senate judiciary committee on Thursday approved subpoenas to compel the appearance of billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow and conservative legal activist Leonard Leo.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the chairman, bypassed 177 amendments filed by Republicans and abruptly held the vote in response to a last-minute GOP effort to thwart the entire process. Every Republican walked out of the hearing as soon as the vote began. The final tally was 11 Democrats voting yes to the subpoenas, no Republicans voting at all.
Crow, a Texas real estate magnate, became the focus of scrutiny after reports by ProPublica revealed that Justice Clarence Thomas did not disclose millions of dollars in gifts Crow gave him in the form of luxury travel and accommodation, real estate purchases and private school tuition for years. Leo, the architect of the conservative takeover of the Supreme Court, also found himself in the spotlight after a ProPublica report showed that he helped arrange an expensive trip, paid for by another conservative billionaire, that Justice Samuel Alito failed to disclose.
Durbin previously sent letters to Crow and Leo asking them to voluntarily appear before the committee for questioning. But both declined, claiming that the separation of powers somehow inoculated them, despite being private citizens, from having to appear before Congress. Their refusals prompted Durbin to pursue subpoenas.
After Thursday’s hearing, GOP committee members Mike Lee (Utah) and Ted Cruz (Texas) claimed that the subpoenas were invalid because Republicans had already left the room and denied a quorum as the vote was happening. They also said the vote didn’t count because the hearing went for longer than two hours, and Republicans had sneakily invoked a Senate rule to prevent the committee from meeting for more than two hours.
A judiciary committee spokesperson said both of their claims were nonsense.
The committee did have a quorum because a majority of the panel had already voted to cut off debate on authorizing the subpoenas before Republicans walked out, the spokesperson said ― with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the ranking Republican on the committee, being present to object to that vote. So Durbin proceeded with authorizing the subpoenas, and the Democratic majority of the committee voted to do so.
Using that metric to determine when a quorum is present is “following the precedent that Republicans established when they were in the majority,” said the spokesperson.
As for the two-hour rule, the spokesperson said Durbin learned just before noon that Republicans were preparing to invoke that rule, which would have prevented the committee from meeting past noon. So Durbin immediately moved to vote on authorizing the subpoenas, a rushed vote that prevented Republicans from offering their own 177 amendments.
“We believe we were within the two hours,” the spokesperson said. “Chair Durbin is now authorized to issue subpoenas to Harlan Crow and Leonard Leo to further the Committee’s investigation into the Supreme Court ethics crisis.”
The subpoenas are part of an investigation by the committee into the Supreme Court’s failure to adopt a binding and enforceable ethics code that would prevent violations like those committed by Thomas and Alito. Durbin, along with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), sponsored legislation to impose such a code on the court.
Amid this investigation, the court voluntarily codified a new ethics code to apply to all of the justices. The new code, however, relies on the goodwill of the justices themselves ― some of whom have repeatedly failed to uphold existing standards ― and has no enforcement mechanism.
“The court’s new code of conduct falls far short of what is expected of the highest court in the land,” Durbin said.
The code is inadequate, he continued, because “for the most part, these rules are not new,” and “there is no enforcement mechanism.”
Graham denounced the subpoena vote as a “jihad” against the conservative Supreme Court.
“This is garbage,” Graham said. “You’re driving the committee into a ditch. This is a joke.”
An attempt to approve the subpoenas for Crow and Leo on Nov. 9 ended after Republicans introduced 88 amendments that covered everything from immigration to subpoenaing the private flight records of the late financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the committee’s action was an “important step” in ensuring accountability for Leo and Crow, “who have both used their power and wealth to gain undisclosed access to Supreme Court Justices.”
“Having these very same billionaires who are pushing cases through the Court have the ability to travel in jets and go to resorts and buy them gifts ― it’s just outrageous,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “Today, Senate Democrats are taking action to look under the hood and make sure we increase transparency, which these subpoenas would do.”