Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and the 10 other Democrats on the committee signed the letter asking Crow to provide an itemized list of gifts worth more than $415 that done to Thomas, any other judge, or any member of the judge’s family, as well as a full list of lodging, transportation, real estate transactions, and admission to any private clubs Crow may have provided.
The Judiciary Committee is now the second Senate committee to attack Crow after ProPublica reported that the Republican donor treated Thomas to an expensive vacation, bought his mother’s house and provided Thomas’ great-nephew tuition at a private school, most of which were not revealed by justice.
Crow has said that he never tried to influence Thomas’ decision-making in court, and Thomas said he believed he had been following the court’s disclosure rules.
The Judiciary Committee also sent letters Monday to three companies associated with Republican donor travel that facilitated travel on private resorts, private jets and superyachts where Thomas joined Crow, asking those companies to provide a list of other guests whose trips coincided with Thomas’s or any other judge’s.
For example, the committee asked Topridge Holdings for a complete list of guests who stayed at Camp Topridge, Crow’s private lakeside resort, while Thomas was there as Crow’s personal guest.
Supreme Court justices are required to disclose gifts of more than $415, but the rules on gifts related to personal hospitality were more confusing. The Judicial Conference, the courts’ policy-making body, recently changed the disclosure rules to require judges and other federal judges to report more details of gifts, including free hotel stays or hunting lodges, and clarified that a travel on a private jet, for example, must be reported.
“Regardless of the intentions behind these stays, whether these gifts to Judge Thomas allowed those with interests before the Court to have private access to a judge is a matter of grave public concern,” the senators wrote. The committee also requested details about any stays other Supreme Court justices may have had at the Adirondacks compound.
All 11 Democrats on the committee, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has been absent for months due to health reasons, signed the letters, and none of the Republicans on the committee joined.
If Crow ignores the information request before the committee’s May 22 deadline, it’s unclear what Durbin’s next move would be. With Feinstein absent from the Judiciary Committee, Democrats on the committee lack the votes to subpoena someone until she returns, given unanimous Republican opposition to the idea. But Durbin has also expressed his reluctance to use the committee’s subpoena power on Crow, saying last week that it’s “rare” for the committee to use its subpoena power on him. He also suggested that he not ask Crow to appear before his committee, since the billionaire would likely refuse.
But in an interview with CNN on Sunday, Durbin did not rule out a subpoena, saying that “everything is on the table” and that he has not made a determination in any way. He also said that he was embarrassed by Thomas as news kept coming in about his relationship with Crow and that he expected Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to move on his behalf to institute standards. stricter ethics for the court.
“This is Roberts’ court, and history will judge him by what decision he makes on it,” Durbin said. “He has the power to make a difference.”
Durbin last month asked Roberts to appear before the committee, but the chief justice denied the request, saying it would be inappropriate given the separation of powers. Roberts also included a “Statement of Ethical Principles and Practices” signed by the nine justices who reaffirmed the disclosure and other rules they abide by, saying they have done so for decades.
The letters to Crow and others are part of the committee’s efforts to draft legislation that strengthens the ethical rules and standards that apply to Supreme Court justices. “Information gathered from these letters will help identify specific deficiencies in the ‘Statement of Ethical Principles and Practices’ that legislation should address,” committee spokeswoman Emily Hampsten said in a statement.
However, such legislation would likely face a rocky road in gaining Republican support, as Republicans in Congress have rallied around Thomas. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Democrats want people to “give up” because Thomas is going on vacation with his friends. Other Republicans have suggested that Democrats are simply angry about the court’s conservative leaning and recent decisions, including overturning the milestone. Roe vs. Wade decision guaranteeing the right to abortion.
Yet a cascade of unflattering reports about potential undisclosed conflicts of interest by Thomas and other justices has fueled calls for ethics reform, as polls suggest Americans have diminishing trust in the institution. A conservative judicial activist, for example, paid Thomas’s wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, tens of thousands of dollars for consulting work a little over a decade ago, specifying that her name not be included on billing paperwork. The Washington Post reported last week.
The reports have also put pressure on Durbin to take a more aggressive stance in pushing for judicial reform. Late last month, Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Crow to inform his committee if Crow reported the gifts to Thomas on his taxes. The senator also said that he would “explore the use of other tools available to the committee” to obtain the information if Crow did not respond by May 8. A Wyden spokesman did not respond to questions Monday about whether the committee had received a response from Crow.
Fewer than 4 in 10 Americans said they have “a lot” or “a fair amount” of trust in the Supreme Court, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released late last month. In 2018, 59 percent said they had faith in the court.