By John Kruzel and Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Senate Democrats on Thursday kicked off a hearing to vote on authorizing subpoenas to a pair of influential conservatives with ties to the U.S. Supreme Court as part of an ethics inquiry spurred by reports of undisclosed largesse directed to some conservative justices.
The Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee is considering subpoenas for billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow, a benefactor of conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, and conservative legal activist Leonard Leo, who was instrumental in compiling Republican former President Donald Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees. The hearing is ongoing.
Senator Dick Durbin, the committee’s Democratic chairman, said subpoenas were necessary in light of the refusal by Crow and Leo to voluntarily comply with the panel’s previous requests for information, including itemized lists of all gifts, transportation and lodging provided to any Supreme Court justice.
The committee is “not engaged in a vendetta against conservatives” or trying to score political points, Durbin said during the hearing.
“Leonard Leo and Harlan Crow are central players in the ethics challenge facing the court,” Durbin said. “Their baseless refusal to respond to the committee’s valid inquiries (prevents) us from understanding the full scope of this issue.”
Lawyers for Leo and Crow in letters to the committee criticized the information requests as lacking a proper legal justification. Crow’s lawyer proposed turning over a narrower range of information but Democrats rebuffed that offer, according to the panel’s Democratic members.
Durbin said on Wednesday that the committee dropped its plan also to subpoena Robin Arkley II after the conservative donor “provided the committee with information that he had been withholding.”
Democrats faced resistance from the panel’s Republican members, who have painted the oversight effort as an attempt to tarnish the Supreme Court after it handed major defeats to liberals in recent years on matters including abortion, gun rights and student debt relief.
“As to the subpoena request, it will be vigorously opposed by everybody over here,” Senator Lindsey Graham, the committee’s top Republican, said regarding the position of the Republican panel members. “I think we’re going too far by subpoenaing private citizens.”
The news outlet ProPublica reported this year on Thomas’s failure to disclose luxury trips and real estate transactions involving Crow, a Texas businessman.
The outlet also reported that Leo helped organize a luxury fishing trip in Alaska attended by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, who failed to disclose taking a private jet provided by billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer. Trump chose all three of his appointees to the court from lists of candidates that Leo played a key role in drawing up, giving it a 6-3 conservative majority.
Thomas said he believed the Crow-funded trips were “personal hospitality” and thus exempt from disclosure requirements, and that his omission of the real estate transaction was inadvertent.
Alito, regarding the flight, said that Singer had “allowed me to occupy what would have otherwise been an unoccupied seat.”
Unlike other members of the federal judiciary, the life-tenured justices have no binding code of conduct, though they are subject to certain financial disclosure laws.
The Senate Judiciary Committee in July approved a Democratic-backed bill that would mandate a binding ethics code for the justices. Given Republican opposition, the bill has little chance of becoming law.
(Reporting by John Kruzel; Additional reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Will Dunham)
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