Senate Democrats railed against Justice Clarence Thomas on Tuesday amid reports that the Supreme Court conservative failed to disclose luxury travel, gifts and a real estate transaction involving a GOP megadonor, but their plan to investigate the conservative jurist remains unclear.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin has promised that his committee will hold a hearing on the alleged ethics violations in the coming weeks, but shared no details when pressed by CNN on whether lawmakers will seek testimony from Thomas or others who might have knowledge about his relationship with the donor, Texas-based billionaire Harlan Crow.
Asked if subpoenas were on the table, Durbin said that no decision has been made on that yet. He said that it was “too soon” to share more information about what his committee’s hearing on Supreme Court ethics might look like. He and other Judiciary Democrats sent a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts last week calling for him to open an investigation into the Thomas allegations.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who sits on the Judiciary Committee, told reporters Tuesday that “the American people deserve all of the facts surrounding Justice Thomas’s blatant violation of law.”
“I hope that [Thomas] will voluntarily appear, and if not, we should consider subpoenas for him and others, like Harlan Crow, who have information,” Blumenthal said.
Other Democrats on the committee said Tuesday that they were deferring to Durbin, who huddled with Democrats on Monday evening to discuss their strategy towards Thomas.
Meanwhile, Republicans appear mostly united in defending the Thomas, suggesting the court can handle its own affairs.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell attacked Democrats for criticizing the court, and said he has confidence in Roberts “to deal with these court internal issues.”
“The Democrats, it seems to me, spent a lot of time criticizing individual members of the court and going after the court as an institution,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday.
Bringing more transparency to the high court has had some bipartisan support in the past, but the court’s jerk to the right – particularly with the three justices that former President Donald Trump put on the bench – has raised the partisan stakes around the issue. In recent years, the conservative majority has handled pivotal rulings undoing abortions rights, dismantling gun regulations and reining in the powers of executive branch agencies – all prompting outcry from Democrats.
Even as Senate Democrats have yet to settle on a plan for their own response to the Thomas allegations, they sought to highlight the issue and framed it within their broader push for a code-of-ethics for the Supreme Court, which is excluded from many of the ethics rules that apply to lower rungs of the federal judiciary.
“I’m disturbed by the recent reports detailing potentially unethical – even potentially illegal conduct – at the highest levels of our judiciary,” Sen. Alex Padilla, a California Democrat, said at a Judiciary Committee hearing for three lower court nominees on Tuesday. “It should go without saying that judges at all levels should be held to strict and enforceable ethical standards.”
Durbin said in a speech that Congress shouldn’t have to wait for the court to act.
“The Supreme Court doesn’t need to wait on Congress to clean up its act; the justices could take action today if they wanted to, and if the court fails to act, Congress must,” Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Back-to back-reports in ProPublica this month detailed how luxury travel and gifts to Thomas from Crow – and even a real estate transaction – went unreported in Thomas’ annual financial disclosures.
Thomas has said that the travel and gifts to him and his family that were financed by the Crows went unreported because he had been advised that he was not required to do so, under an exemption in the court’s disclosure rules for so-called “personal hospitality.” After scrutiny of those rules by lawmakers, the Judicial Conference – which operates as the policy-making body for the federal judiciary – recently closed a loophole in those rules that appears to have covered some of the hospitality Thomas received. Thomas said that he intended to follow that updated guidance in the future, and a source close to the justice also told CNN in recent days that he planned to amend his disclosure form to report the real estate transaction, the sale of his mother’s home to Crow.
“If the reports are accurate, it stinks,” Sen. Mitt Romney said Monday evening, in rare comments from a Republican criticizing Thomas’ lack of transparency.
Other Republicans lined up in defense of the justice – who was named to the Supreme Court by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 – and said it wasn’t Congress’ place to push an ethics code on the high court.
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, suggested that the accusations against Thomas were part of a “multi-decade effort now to target Clarence Thomas by these liberal activist groups.”
This is not the first time Thomas has been at the center of an ethics controversy. Last year, CNN reported that his wife Ginni Thomas, a conservative activist, was texting with Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows about the former president’s efforts overturn his 2020 election defeat, and her political lobbying has long raised questions about when justices are obligated to recuse themselves from cases.
Yet Republicans have shown little interest in joining Democrats in using legislation to impose an ethics code on the justices.
“The Court, kind of historically I think, has sort of policed itself,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the GOP’s Senate Whip, who said Thomas had been a “solid justice on the court through the years and has acquitted himself well there.”
“Let’s see what the court does,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told CNN Tuesday. “I prefer them to do it internally.”