If Durbin Crows About Subpoenas, He Needs to Issue Them

It’s encouraging that the Senate Judiciary Committee has decided to get to the bottom of questions regarding billionaire influence and corruption at the Supreme Court. Now, it’s time they rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty to actually make it happen.

The last time that we told you about the ethics controversy at the Supreme Court was back in August. We outlined a number of the bombshell investigative reports that came out in the preceding months regarding billionaires’ intimate connections with Supreme Court justices. For better or worse, a lot has happened since then. For this week’s Closer Look, we want to highlight some new developments that have surfaced in this ongoing debacle and also tell you about some of the actions that the Patriotic Millionaires have taken in recent days to try to put an end to it.

If you remember, one of the characters that we introduced to you back in August was Harlan Crow. Crow is the billionaire real estate mogul and GOP donor who, it was revealed, has gifted Justice Clarence Thomas luxury trips on his yacht and private jet and vacations at his exclusive private Adirondacks resort over the years. He also paid for Thomas’ grand-nephew’s private school tuition and bought a string of properties in Georgia from Thomas. These revelations became even more jaw-dropping when it was revealed that Crow had business before the Supreme Court, from which Thomas failed to recuse himself, and Thomas failed to disclose any of this incredible largesse on any of his annual financial disclosure reports.

Over the last few months, even more bombshells have dropped about Crow and his relationship with Justice Thomas. In August, Thomas disclosed three trips he accepted from Crow in 2022, two to Dallas and one to the Adirondacks. (Hey – at least he was honest this time!) In September, a new ProPublica exposé detailed Thomas’ close ties with the billionaire Koch brothers, a relationship that was cultivated over 25 years by Crow bringing Thomas as his guest to an annual all-male retreat in Northern California.

Perhaps the most stunning and disturbing development came in December, when another ProPublica report revealed that, in 2000, Thomas privately threatened to resign if he did not receive a salary increase and also pushed for an end to a ban on Supreme Court justices receiving speaking fees. As we now know, Thomas’ income was then supplemented by gifts from conservative billionaires like Crow, whose interests Thomas went on to protect in various rulings. When the news dropped, the Patriotic Millionaires came out swinging, accusing the justice of engaging in quid pro quo corruption and calling on the Department of Justice and Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate his behavior fully. (If quid pro quo corruption isn’t bad enough, it’s also possible that Thomas committed tax fraud if those gifts were truly given as a way to buttress his income and keep him on the Court.)

Another of the characters involved in this Supreme Court corruption scandal is Leonard Leo. Leo has gained notoriety over the years for being the leader of the Federalist Society and the de facto architect of the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority. In August, we mentioned that Leo once indirectly paid Justice Thomas’ wife Ginni $25,000 by routing it through Kellyanne Conway. Since then, several reports have dropped which have underscored the far-reaching extent of Leo’s influence and power in the conservative judicial movement.

In September, a POLITICO exclusive detailed the ways that Ginni Thomas and Leonard Leo – with a great deal of financial help from none other than Harlan Crow – seized the opportunity to build a billion-dollar network of conservative nonprofits after the 2010 Citizens United ruling loosened campaign finance laws. A month later, ProPublica published an outstanding profile piece of Leo and his decades-long efforts to fundamentally reshape the judiciary to fit his conservative vision – from the very top with the Supreme Court to the very bottom with lower federal courts and state solicitors general. He did so by cultivating personal relationships, recommending people for jobs, supporting the ideological inculcation of young lawyers, hosting events, and (of course) fundraising. Finally, in December, a POLITICO investigation revealed that, in seven of the highest-profile rulings that the Supreme Court has issued over the last two years, Leo and his nonprofits were either directly or indirectly connected to a majority of amicus briefs filed on behalf of conservative parties.

As the bombshells continued to drop about Harlan Crow and Leonard Leo, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), sent letters to both of them demanding more information about the gifts that they gave or arranged for Supreme Court justices. For months, they refused to comply. This then prompted the Democrats on the Committee to vote to authorize subpoenas for both men in November, which the Patriotic Millionaires fully supported.

It would be nice to think that the drama ended there, but unfortunately that’s not the case. It has been over 75 days since Senate Democrats voted to authorize the subpoenas, but unfortunately, Senator Durbin has yet to actually issue them. It is shocking that Durbin and his colleagues could get so far into their race for answers on billionaire influence at the Supreme Court and then just suddenly lose steam and stop with the finish line in sight. We understand that the course is long and arduous, but when American democracy is on the line, stopping is not an option, no matter what political stripes happen to be on your race bib.

That is why we joined over 85 of our allies this week in sending a letter to Senator Durbin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, calling on them to issue (and, if need be, enforce) the subpoenas to Crow and Leo, hold hearings and conduct a full-scale investigation into corrupt influences at the Supreme Court, and pass anti-corruption legislation targeted at the Court. In November, the Supreme Court announced that it had adopted a formal code of ethics, but experts quickly denounced it as toothless as it has no real enforcement mechanism and essentially relies on the justices to police themselves. Clearly, that kind of honor system has failed, so Congress now needs to step up. The Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act, recently re-introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, would be a good place to start in addition to hearings and issuing the subpoenas.

When his Committee voted to authorize the subpoenas, Senator Durbin said, The highest court in the land cannot have the lowest ethical standards.” We couldn’t agree more, and think it’s time that Durbin finally made good on his word.