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Harlan Crow rebuffs Democrats’ questions about gifts to Justice Clarence Thomas

Harlan Crow in the library at his home on April 16, 2023, in Dallas.    (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)
By Joseph Morton The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats are stepping up their attempts to pry information from Harlan Crow about the luxury travel and other gifts he’s given Justice Clarence Thomas over the years, while the Dallas real estate magnate sticks to his position that it’s none of their business.

Through his attorney, Crow accused the senators of pursuing a partisan agenda and lectured them on the proper separation of powers.

That didn’t go over well with Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

It’s a “dangerous, undemocratic argument” to say any individual can hide information from Congress by asserting it’s in the best interest of the Supreme Court to do so, they said Tuesday in a sharp public response.

The senators have sought information from Crow as they press for the nation’s highest court to adopt a code of ethics like the one binding lower federal courts.

Crow is challenging that motivation as any sort of justification to pry into his records.

“Congress does not have the power to impose ethics standards on the Supreme Court,” his attorney, Michael Bopp, wrote to the committee this week, in a letter obtained by The Dallas Morning News. “It therefore cannot mount an investigation for the purpose of helping craft such standards. The Committee also may not pursue an investigation for the purpose of targeting and exposing private facts about an individual.”

Legislative purpose

Crow’s attorney argued that Congress hasn’t shown a valid legislative purpose in seeking information related to the leadership of a coequal branch of government.

Durbin and Whitehouse reject that argument and issued an implicit threat to escalate the fight.

“Let’s be clear: Harlan Crow doesn’t call the shots here. He is not a branch — nor even a member — of government and cannot claim the protections and privileges of one,” they said. “The Senate Judiciary Committee has clearly established oversight and legislative authority to assess and address the ethical crisis facing the Court. All options are on the table moving forward.”

Those options could include subpoenas as Senate Democrats continue to dig into revelations from ProPublica that Crow provided luxury trips that Thomas did not disclose, bought property in Georgia from the justice, and paid private school tuition for a grandnephew he had been raising.

Republicans, including Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, have criticized the attention to Thomas and Crow as a smear job.

Durbin and Whitehouse say they’re interested in the “full extent of gifts, travel, and lodging given by Mr. Crow and several holding companies to Justice Thomas and any other Supreme Court Justices, as well as information about who else with interests before the Supreme Court may have received private, undisclosed access to Justices through this largesse.”

Crow’s attorney called for Democrats to abandon their inquiry and respect individual privacy.

“Respectfully, we ask that the Committee Majority reassess the partisan course it is pursuing, which has no place under our Constitution,” he wrote.

Amid the defiant language, the attorney added on a more conciliatory note that he would “welcome a discussion” with committee aides.

But Durbin and Whitehouse are not going to be mollified by a staff-level discussion.

Crow also has pushed back on an inquiry by the Senate Finance Committee that cited income tax implications of the gifts.

The chairman of that committee, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., recently floated the idea of seeking a subpoena to compel answers from Crow.

Any subpoenas could be tied up by court challenges in which the arguments advanced by Crow’s attorney would be central.

Democrats also could pursue legislation requiring the Supreme Court to adopt a binding set of ethics rules, although such a measure seems unlikely to pass in the current Congress.

“One would think that Chief Justice [John] Roberts and the other Justices would want to make a clean break from this sordid episode,” Durbin and Whitehouse said. “They could do so today, but they haven’t. If the Court won’t act, Congress must. The highest court in the land shouldn’t have the lowest ethical standards.”