Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) speaks to reporters

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) speaks to reporters in the U.S. Capitol on March 14, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

'Important First Step': Durbin Moves to Subpoena Rich Benefactors of Alito, Thomas

"The American people demand and deserve an ethical Supreme Court," said the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee.

Amid mounting calls to address ethics concerns with the U.S. Supreme Court, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin on Thursday unveiled his motion to subpoena three wealthy men with ties to right-wing Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas.

The panel "will vote to subpoena Harlan Crow, Robin Arkley, and Leonard Leo—two billionaire megadonors and one of their enablers—who sit at the center of the ethical crisis currently gripping the United States Supreme Court," Durbin (D-Ill.) said in a floor speech earlier this week.

"This vote is the next step in the committee's ongoing investigation on the ethics of the Supreme Court," he noted. "It comes only after Mr. Crow refused to comply with committee requests, and Mr. Leo and Arkley outright stonewalled the committee in the exercise of our constitutional authority."

Durbin—who's also the Senate majority whip—said on social media Thursday that the panel could vote as soon as next week. Citing a committee spokesperson, NBC Newsreported that it will likely be scheduled for November 9.

After Durbin and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who chairs a key subcommittee, confirmed the subpoena plans on Monday, Crow's office pointed out that he shared some information with senators and called the new move "a stunt aimed at undermining a sitting Supreme Court Justice for ideological and political purposes."

Leo—who heads the Federalist Society, a key force in shifting the U.S. judiciary to the right—similarly responded that "I will not bow to the vile and disgusting liberal McCarthyism that seeks to destroy the Supreme Court simply because it follows the Constitution rather than their political agenda."

Throughout this year, reporters and Democrat-controlled Senate panels have exposed various instances of rich, powerful men providing Alito and Thomas with previously undisclosed gifts, from luxury trips to private school tuition for a relative. In Thomas' case, dozens of groups nationwide are now demanding his immediate resignation.

"How can a Supreme Court justice accept such lavish gifts, let alone fail to disclose them to the American people?" Durbin said in his speech. "The Supreme Court of the United States, the highest court in the land, does not have an enforceable code of conduct."

Democrats on his panel passed Whitehouse's Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act in July, but the bill is unlikely to be approved by the full Senate or Republican-dominated House.

Following that vote, Alito publicly suggested that Congress lacks the power to regulate the high court—which experts called "wrong and frightening" and Whitehouse rebuked with an ethics complaint.

"So far, the chief justice, John Roberts, and the court have failed to do anything," Durbin stressed. "I am sorry to say I happen to believe that we have just seen a small amount of the lavish gifts that have gone to the Supreme Court thanks to the efforts of investigative journalists and the Senate Finance Committee that have discovered some of these things."

"I'm not going to stand idly by as these fawning billionaires with interest before the court use their immense wealth to buy private access to the justices and then deny the Senate Judiciary Committee information to which we're lawfully entitled," he vowed. "That is why the committee will vote to authorize subpoenas to these individuals."

National advocacy groups on Monday delivered over 400,000 petition signatures to the offices of Durbin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), demanding probes of recent claims against Alito and Thomas, and a floor vote for the SCERT Act.

"We cannot afford to sit back and hope this issue resolves itself," said Stand Up America executive director Christina Harvey. "We need urgent action to meet this moment. It's time for Senate leaders to step in and do something. If the court cannot act in an ethical manner and put the will of the people over their wealthy benefactors, then Congress must act now."

The group later thanked Durbin and Whitehouse for their "leadership in taking this important first step" of launching the subpoena process and called for public hearings "to understand the full scope of influence these right-wing megadonors had on sitting justices."

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