Senate Democrats authorize subpoenas in the Supreme Court ethics probe as Republicans stage walkout

WASHINGTON — Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to approve subpoenas for two prominent conservatives who arranged luxury trips and other benefits for Supreme Court justices, but Republicans planned to object to the action’s legitimacy.

The committee chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., pushed the vote through in the final moments of the meeting after Republicans walked out. The vote by the 11 Democrats would approve subpoenas for Republican megadonor Harlan Crow and conservative activist Leonard Leo. Still, Durbin acknowledged that eventual enforcement of the subpoenas could depend on a 60-vote threshold in the closely divided Senate.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the committee’s top Republican, invoked a rule limiting the hearing to two hours, but Durbin moved ahead with a vote on whether to authorize the subpoena.

“They think we’re going to roll over and come back a while later and try again and face the same restrictions,” Durbin said. “There comes a point where a vote has to be taken. They headed out. That is their decision.”

It capped a contentious hearing in which Republicans tried to block the committee from voting on the effort to subpoena Crow and Leo for information about the gifts and trips they gave to Supreme Court justices. The move is part of the committee’s investigation into the ethics of the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court adopted its first ethics code this month after facing criticism that some judges received luxury trips and gifts from wealthy benefactors. But Democrats pointed out that the ethics code is not enforced and that judges can police themselves. It “falls far short of what we would expect from the highest court in the land,” Durbin said.

The committee has proposed legislation to impose a separate code of ethics on the court.

Crow has had both a close personal and financial relationship with Judge Clarence Thomas for more than two decades. Crow paid for almost annual vacations for Thomas. Crow also bought from Thomas and others the house in Georgia, where the judge’s mother still lives, and Crow paid for private school for a relative of Thomas.

Leo is an executive with the Federalist Society and has orchestrated an effort to move the court and the rest of the judiciary to the right.

During the hearing, senators at times repeated years of grievances about the tactics used to control a committee at the center of the political battle for judicial oversight. Republicans, angry at Durbin’s attempt to move forward with the subpoena vote, threatened to destroy any bipartisan cooperation on the committee.

Graham said the subpoenas were “nonsense” and “a complete joke” and accused Democrats of trying to bend the court to their will.

“You’re trying to restructure the court. This is just a different way of doing it,” he said.

When Durbin limited debate on individual judicial nominees to prevent Republicans from delaying the subpoena vote, Republican senators threatened retaliation.

“There are going to be a lot of consequences if you go down this path,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

The committee previously planned to subpoena another wealthy Republican donor, Robin Arkley II, who arranged and paid for a private jet trip to Alaska for Judge Samuel Alito in 2008. Durbin dropped that subpoena after Arkley provided the information the committee was looking for.

Durbin said Leo and Crow have not cooperated with the commission’s requests for more information about their relationships with judges.

“Both Leonard Leo and Harlan Crow are central players in this crisis,” Durbin said. “Their attempts to thwart legitimate congressional oversight efforts should concern us all.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., added his support to the effort, saying, “The hypocrisy is undeniable and the American people see right through it.”