WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee descended into partisan rancor Thursday as Democrats sought a subpoena for Dallas real estate magnate Harlan Crow in their investigation of his gifts to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Democrats say those gifts highlight the need for a binding code of conduct at the nation’s highest court. Under pressure, the court released an ethics code Nov. 13 that Democrats called a step in the right direction, but inadequate.
“There is no enforcement mechanism in the justices’ announcement,” Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in opening Thursday’s session.
That omission means the code won’t restore public confidence in the court, Durbin said.
Democrats say faith in the court has been shaken by revelations that Crow provided luxury trips Thomas did not disclose, bought property in Georgia from the justice and paid private school tuition for a grandnephew being raised by Thomas and his wife.
ProPublica, an investigative news organization, also reported that conservative legal activist Leonard Leo helped organize a 2008 Alaska fishing trip that included Justice Samuel Alito, which Alito likewise did not disclose.
The trip included a billionaire whose hedge fund ended up in disputes that have since landed before the Supreme Court at least 10 times.
Crow has said there’s nothing inappropriate about his friendship with Thomas and that he has made a good faith offer to provide some information to the committee.
Democrats said Crow only offered information covering the past five years, while his gifts to Thomas go back 25 years.
They say they need subpoenas for both Crow and Leo, who also has refused to provide the Democrats information they’re seeking.
The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, was blunt Thursday in his response to Durbin.
“This is garbage,” he said.
Graham cast the subpoenas as part of what he called a “jihad” against the court driven by Democrats’ frustration at recent rightward-tilting decisions. He predicted a “brick wall” of resistance to the subpoenas from Republicans.
Republicans proposed 177 amendments to the subpoenas. Most of those, Durbin said, have nothing to do with the matter under discussion and are a delaying tactic. Durbin wanted to vote on the subpoenas weeks ago but punted in the face of the Republican amendment barrage.
All nine justices agreed to the ethics code released Nov. 13. In a statement, they characterized it as simply a formal acknowledgment of standards they had long followed.
“The absence of a Code, however, has led in recent years to the misunderstanding that the Justices of this Court, unlike all other jurists in this country, regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules,” they said. “To dispel this misunderstanding, we are issuing this Code, which largely represents a codification of principles that we have long regarded as governing our conduct.”
The rancor at Thursday’s session escalated when Durbin shifted to pending judicial nominations but refused to let Republicans explain their opposition to some of them, insisting they’d been able to do so in previous sessions.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, was one of those denied a chance to speak on the nominations.
As the clerk called the roll, Republicans sought repeatedly in vain to be recognized, accused Durbin of breaking committee rules and threatened retribution.
“You just destroyed one of the most important committees in the United States Senate,” Cornyn told Durbin amid the cross talk.