Conservative billionaire Harlan Crow responded Monday night to a request from Senate judiciary committee Democrats for more details about gifts he’s given to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas that have not been disclosed.
Crow’s response? I’m not telling you anything.
“After careful consideration, we do not believe the Committee has the authority to investigate Mr. Crow’s personal friendship with Justice Clarence Thomas,” reads a letter from Crow’s lawyer, Michael Bopp of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.
“Most importantly, Congress does not have the constitutional power to impose ethics rules and standards on the Supreme Court,” the letter continues. “Doing so would exceed Congress’s Article I authority and violate basic separation of powers principles. That precludes the Committee from pursuing an investigation in support of such legislation.”
Here’s a copy of Crow’s letter, first obtained by HuffPost:
Democrats on the Senate committee, led by Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), demanded earlier this month that Crow provide them with a list of all gifts in excess of $415 that he has given to Supreme Court justices. Their letter came in response to ProPublica’s bombshell report last month that Thomas has been accepting luxury trips and gifts from Crow virtually every year for more than two decades without disclosing them.
Crow also purchased Thomas’ ancestral home from the justice, renovated it, and now reportedly allows Thomas’ mother to live there rent-free. In addition, Crow paid private school tuition for Thomas’ grandnephew, whom Thomas treated as his adopted son. Thomas failed to disclose both the sale of his family’s home and his adopted son’s covered tuition.
Amid all of this, Crow has had business interests before the court.
In a Tuesday statement, Durbin lambasted the GOP megadonor’s response to the committee, calling it “untenable” and saying it does not “provide a credible justification” for Crow’s failure to respond to senators’ written questions.
“The gifts and access to Justices that these companies provided are highly relevant to the Committee’s legislative efforts on ethics reform,” Durbin said.
The Illinois senator also rejected Crow’s claim that Congress lacks the authority to pass ethics legislation that applies to Supreme Court justices, and mocked the idea that Crow doesn’t need to provide information to the panel because it’s a separation-of-powers issue.
“Mr. Crow does not work, and has never worked, for the Supreme Court,” said Durbin.
He added: “The Committee will respond more fully to this letter in short order, and will continue to seek a substantive response to our information requests in order to craft and advance the targeted ethics legislation needed to help restore trust in the Supreme Court.”
At the heart of all this is the glaring problem of the Supreme Court not having an enforceable code of ethics. Indeed, it has never had one, unlike every other federal court in the country. Senate Democrats have introduced legislation to give the court a code of ethics, but Republicans have almost entirely rejected the idea of doing anything, saying it’s on the court to govern itself.
In a sign of how politicized the issue remains in the Senate, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) on Tuesday led Republicans on the judiciary committee in a letter to Durbin, criticizing his efforts to compel Crow to provide more details to the panel about gifts he’s given to Thomas.
“Your requests appear misaligned and political,” the GOP senators wrote. “Further, they only target conservative members of the Supreme Court. To start, your letters claim that you believe ‘private access’ to justices ― seemingly when justices socialize with anyone not on the Court ― ‘creates an appearance of undue influence that undermines the public’s trust in the Court’s impartiality.’ But judges, justices, politicians, and other public figures engage with friends in private settings every day ― just as anyone else.”
Kennedy’s letter concludes: “We urge you to withdraw your May 8th letters to Mr. Crow and his entities and to refocus the Judiciary Committee’s efforts on legitimate inquiries.”
Accountable.US, a nonpartisan watchdog group focused on government corruption, maintains that the Supreme Court is highly overdue for a code of ethics, regardless of whether Congress or the court puts it in place.
“It was Justice Thomas’s decades-long improper financial relationship with billionaire benefactor Harlan Crow that sparked the Supreme Court corruption crisis, which has now reached a fever pitch,” said the group’s president, Kyle Herrig. “Chief Justice Roberts has deflected his responsibility to clean up his Court, forcing Congress to step in. Whether by Roberts or Congress, we need urgent reform to restore credibility and integrity to our Court.”