Committee Democrats have for months tried to get the Supreme Court to adopt a such a code, following reports that Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. accepted — and did not disclose — luxury trips paid for by Crow or arranged by Leo.
The high court’s new ethics rules were praised by some as a positive first step. But legal ethics experts criticized them for not including a process for handling complaints that a justice has violated the standards and for giving individual justices too much discretion over recusal decisions.
At the hearing Thursday, Democrats said the code does not go far enough and that it is still necessary to subpoena and press for more information from Crow and Leo to inform proposed legislation.
“Without an enforcement mechanism, this code of conduct, while a step in a positive direction, is insufficient to restore the public’s faith in the Court,” committee Chairman Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said in his prepared opening statement. “Because of this, congressional action remains both appropriate and necessary. The Committee’s investigation into the Court’s ethical crisis — and these subpoenas in particular — are key pieces of our legislative efforts to establish an effective code of conduct.”
Republicans aggressively resisted the effort, which they said was intended to delegitimize the conservative majority that ascended with three nominees of President Donald Trump and has shifted the court dramatically to the right. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), the committee’s ranking Republican, called the subpoena vote a “charade” intended to destroy the court’s conservatives and, in particular, Thomas’s reputation.
If Leo and Crow do not comply, Democrats can seek enforcement of the subpoenas in court. That step requires a vote of the full Senate, with 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.
“These subpoenas are never going to see the light of day,” Graham said. “You know you’re not going to get 60 votes for these subpoenas.”
Republicans had close to 200 amendments they were prepared to offer to slow down the process, a tactic that previously prompted Durbin to delay the vote. But on Thursday, Durbin pushed ahead, cutting off debate over the objection of Republicans, who promptly walked out of the committee room.
“You just destroyed one of the most important committees in the United States Senate,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told Durbin. “Congratulations on destroying the United States Senate Judiciary Committee.”
Leo and Crow have resisted Democrats’ demands for information related to Supreme Court gifts and travel. In letters citing past Supreme Court cases, lawyers for Crow and Leo said the committee’s requests are overly invasive, exceed the panel’s authority and are driven by politics, rather than a legitimate need for information to pass legislation.
Leo has refused to voluntarily provide the information over the past several months, while Crow offered to turn over a limited set of information that lawmakers said was insufficient.
In a statement after the vote Thursday, Crow’s office called the subpoena unenforceable and the investigation unlawful and partisan.
“Committee Democrats have made intrusive demands of a private citizen that far exceed any reasonable standard and to this date have not explained why this request is necessary to craft legislation,” Crow’s statement said. “Still, Mr. Crow maintains his readiness to discuss the matter further with the Committee.”
Leo said in a statement that he “will not cooperate with this unlawful campaign of political retribution.”
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