GOP senators walk out of vote on subpoenas in U.S. Supreme Court ethics inquiry

WASHINGTON — South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Republican colleagues stormed out of a Democratic-led U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee vote on Thursday to authorize subpoenas for two high-profile GOP operatives as part of an ethics probe into undisclosed financial ties to U.S. Supreme Court justices.

The panel voted 11-0 to subpoena billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow and well-connected conservative leader Leonard Leo. All Republican members left the meeting in protest prior to the roll call vote.

The vote may be contested by Republicans as committee rules state that at least two members of the minority must be present for a quorum during committee business.

The subpoena vote came after a year of revelations about Supreme Court justices’ failure to disclose luxury travel and real estate deals.

Investigative journalists for ProPublica in April chronicled that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas never disclosed private jet and yacht excursions paid for by Crow. The nonprofit investigative outfit also revealed that Thomas did not disclose a real estate transaction with Crow.

In June, ProPublica revealed that Justice Samuel Alito attended a fishing expedition in Alaska organized by Republican donors, including Leo and a billionaire whose companies have had matters before the court.

Committee Chair Dick Durbin maintained that Leo and Crow have refused to comply with the committee’s probe.

“Leonard Leo and Harlan Crow are central players in this crisis. Their attempts to thwart the legitimate oversight efforts of the Congress should concern all of us,” said Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. “As I’ve said before I do not seek this authorization lightly and do not ask for it often.”

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Graham: ‘politically motivated’ push

Senate Republicans on the panel slammed the subpoenas.

Ranking member Graham characterized the Democrats’ argument as “garbage” and “politically motivated.”

Thursday’s committee meeting marked Durbin’s second attempt to vote on the subpoena authorizations. The chair cut short a Nov. 9 committee meeting when votes were scheduled because of “scheduling issues.”

Durbin said Thursday committee Republicans have tried to stall the votes by filing 177 amendments to his subpoena authorizations.

“The vast majority of which have nothing to do with the Supreme Court ethics crisis,” Durbin said.

GOP panel members did not offer up any of the amendments during the meeting and instead left en masse.

Graham initially remained seated for a vote Durbin called to suspend debate, and essentially speed up the process. The vote was 11-1, with Graham casting the sole no vote.

Leo’s spokesperson Adam Kennedy did not provide comment in response to Thursday’s committee vote.

In an Oct. 19 letter to Durbin, Leo’s attorney wrote that “(i)n committee Democrats’ imagining Mr. Leo is a ‘right-wing’ ‘fixer’ who sits atop a conspiracy to capture the Supreme Court …”

“It is not our responsibility to aid in that partisan effort, and we choose not to do so today,” attorney David B. Rivkin Jr. of BakerHostetler LLC wrote in the letter’s conclusion.

A statement issued Thursday attributed to the Office of Harlan Crow criticized the committee’s vote as “invalid.”

“Despite the unenforceability of the subpoena, Mr. Crow remains willing to engage with the Committee in good faith, just as he has consistently done throughout this process. Mr. Crow offered extensive information responsive to the Committee’s requests despite his strong objections to its necessity and legality,” continued the statement sent by communications and public affairs firm Bullpen Strategy .

A SCOTUS ethics code

Since the committee last met, the Supreme Court released an ethics code signed by all nine justices.

The 15-page code of conduct, issued Nov. 13, is a new maneuver by the court to publicize its standards. The document states in its opening that the rules are “not new” and that the court has “long had the equivalent of common law ethics rules.”

But Durbin maintains the code falls “far short.”

“This court’s statement on the code specifically notes … ‘For the most part these rules are not new.’ That’s a tell. It was the old way of doing things that brought the reputation of the court to a new low in public opinion,” Durbin said.

An ethics law for justices?

Graham argued Thursday that rather than authorize subpoenas, the committee should address the issue legislatively with an ethics bill that was reported out of committee along party lines. He accused Democrats of slow walking the bill.

“I don’t think you’re remotely interested in bringing up the bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee. If you really cared about this, we’d be on the floor a long time ago debating fixing this problem,” Graham said.

In July the panel voted 11-10 to send the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency Act to the full Senate.

The proposal, sponsored by Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, would establish new conflict of interest rules for Supreme Court justices and the federal judiciary at large.

If passed by the upper chamber, the bill would also compel the court to establish a publicly available code of conduct and an official complaint procedure, among other transparency measures including requiring minimum gift, travel and income disclosures.

Senate leadership placed the bill on the chamber’s legislative calendar but it has not yet come to the floor.


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