(Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Nov 30, 2023
Democratic lawmakers on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday said Republican members' conduct spoke volumes as the GOP used "every permutation" of obstruction to try to prevent the panel from subpoenaing billionaire megadonor Harlan Crow and Federalist Society co-chairman Leonard Leo over their gifts to right-wing U.S. Supreme Court justices—a ploy that ultimately failed.
A committee meeting was marked by a tumultuous back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats, with lawmakers including Texas GOP Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz accusing the Democrats of enacting a vendetta against conservative justices on the high court with their vote in favor of ordering Crow and Leo to testify.
Both men have refused to provide the committee with information regarding reports that they funded luxury trips and other gifts for right-wing Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
As a leader of the Federalist Society, Leo has also played a key role in securing seats on the Supreme Court for some of its most conservative members, paving the way for the court to overturn Roe v. Wade and significantly weaken states' abilities to regulate gun ownership, among other rulings.
Stand Up America applauded committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and the other Democrats for voting to subpoena Crow and Leo, saying the move—in the face of Republican obstruction and claims that the subpoenas would "destroy" the committee—helped to reassert Congress' role as a co-equal branch of government.
"Billionaires like Harlan Crow believe they can buy loyalty on the Supreme Court, turning our nation's highest court into a political plaything for the ultrawealthy and well-connected," said Brett Edkins, managing director of policy and political affairs for Stand Up America. "Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a strong message that the rich and powerful cannot evade scrutiny or accountability."
"The American people deserve answers," Edkins continued. "Today's vote brings us one step closer to understanding the full scope of Justice Thomas' and Alito's wrongdoing and restoring honesty and integrity to the Supreme Court."
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court announced for the first time the establishment of an ethics code, but advocates said that without any enforcement mechanisms in place, the code would not go far in ensuring an end to lavish gifts like those paid for by Crow and Leo.
"We need a Supreme Court that works for all of us, and we need assurance that it is," said Maya Wiley, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "Following the court's recent adoption of its own code of conduct, which is insufficient and lacks any mechanism for enforcement, this urgent work must continue."
"As the committee exercises its crucial oversight authority to ensure abuses of power don't go unchecked in our federal judiciary, Congress must continue to act," Wiley said. "It is unacceptable that abuses of power could become more frequent and severe—further corroding the public's faith in our judicial system and undermining our democracy."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) outlined on social media the efforts Republicans went to on Thursday to stop Democrats from subpoenaing Leo and Crow—invoking the "two-hour rule" which required the meeting to end by 12:00 pm, interrupting the vote repeatedly, and staging a walkout.
"They're also saying we have no business doing this," Whitehouse said. "Wait a second—the judicial conference is a body Congress established, the disclosure laws are laws passed by Congress. The idea that Congress can't oversee how an agency that it created is implementing laws it passed, is frankly nonsense."
Crow told Forbes after the vote that the subpoena was "invalid" and demonstrated "the unlawful and partisan nature of this investigation."
Leo echoed Republican members when he issued his own statement, saying Democrats "have been destroying the Supreme Court; now they are destroying the Senate.
"I will not cooperate with this unlawful campaign of political retribution," said Leo.
The right-wing activist's response did not come as a surprise to progressive critics.
"For wealthy fascists like Leonard Leo, the law is something to exploit, not obey," said veteran journalist Mark Jacob.
The committee could seek to enforce the subpoenas in court or refer the matter to the U.S. Justice Department if Leo and Crow follow through on their threat to not comply with the orders.
As the committee determines how to get to the bottom of the allegations against the right-wing activists, said Wiley, progressives must continue their "ongoing push to confirm highly qualified federal judges who are professionally and demographically diverse and committed to civil and human rights."
"That is how we build an equal justice judiciary that works for everyone," she said. "Communities across the nation depend on federal jurists to fairly administer justice for all people, and we must do whatever it takes to ensure that they do."
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