Washington — Texas real estate magnate and GOP donor Harlan Crow rejected requests from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee for a full accounting of the gifts, trips and travel accommodations he has given to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, claiming the committee lacks the authority to probe Crow’s relationship with the justice.
Michael Bopp, a lawyer for Crow, told Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin in a letter obtained by CBS News that the panel has not identified a “valid legislative purpose” for its investigation, and does not have the authority to conduct an ethics examination of a member of the Supreme Court.
“The Committee’s stated purpose of crafting new ethics guidelines for the Supreme Court is inconsistent with its actions and the circumstances in which this investigation was launched, all of which suggest that the Committee is targeting Justice Thomas for special and unwarranted opprobrium,” Bopp wrote in the letter, dated May 22.
The letter was first obtained by CNN and Bloomberg.
Bopp also claimed that Congress does not have the constitutional authority to impose ethics rules and standards on the Supreme Court.
“Doing so would exceed Congress’s Article I authority and violate basic separation of powers principles,” Bopp told Durbin. “That precludes the Committee from pursuing an investigation in support of such legislation.”
Several legislative proposals have been introduced in the House and Senate that would require a code of conduct for the Supreme Court, instituted either by an outside entity such as the Judicial Conference or by the court itself.
In arguing that the Judiciary Committee lacks the authority to conduct a congressional ethics investigation of Thomas, Crow’s lawyer said it’s “clear” the probe “is part of a larger campaign to target and intimidate Justice Thomas and unearth what the Committee apparently believes will be embarrassing details of the Justice’s personal life. Those goals do not authorize the Committee to conduct a congressional ethics investigation of Justice Thomas.”
Durbin slammed the response from Bopp, saying it “did not provide a credible justification” for the failure of Crow and other entities to respond to the committee’s requests. Still, he said the committee will not be deterred in seeking a “substantive response” to the information requests in order to craft and move forward with ethics legislation.
“Harlan Crow believes the secrecy of his lavish gifts to Justice Thomas is more important than the reputation of the highest court of law in this land,” the Illinois Democrat said in a statement. “He is wrong.”
The letter from Crow’s lawyer comes in response to requests Democrats on the Judiciary panel sent to the GOP megadonor and entities that own his private yacht, plane and private lakeside resort on May 8 for information about his ties to Thomas.
From Crow himself, the panel sought itemized lists of all gifts worth more than $415, real estate transactions, and transportation or lodging given to Supreme Court justices or their family members, as well as a list of the occasions when Crow provided any of the justices with entrance to any private, members-only clubs.
Senate Democrats asked the other entities for the full itinerary for all travel Thomas or any other justices took on the yacht and jet, as well as a list of all guests whose trips overlapped with the justice’s.
In addition to declining to turn over information to the Judiciary Committee, Crow’s lawyer rejected a similar request from Sen. Ron Wyden, the Democratic chairman of the Finance panel, earlier this month to determine whether Crow’s gifts to Thomas complied with relevant federal tax and ethics laws.
Bopp told Wyden that his inquiry “appears to be a component of a broader campaign against Justice Thomas” and fails to further a valid legislative purpose.
Thomas’ relationship with Crow, which spans more than two decades, has come under scrutiny in recent weeks amid a drumbeat of reports from the news outlet ProPublica detailing the gifts, luxury travel and financial arrangements Thomas has benefited from during their friendship.
ProPublica also found that Crow paid for two years of tuition at private schools for Thomas’ grandnephew, which the justice did not disclose on financial disclosure forms.
Durbin invited Chief Justice John Roberts to answer questions before the committee earlier this month about the ethics guidelines that the justices follow. But Roberts declined to appear and instead sent Durbin a letter that included a three-page “Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices” signed by the nine justices.
The statement, though, did little to address Democrats’ concerns about the Supreme Court and the ethical standards the justices adhere to, and they have warned that they could take legislative action to strengthen the ethical rules that govern the high court.
Republicans, though, have largely defended Thomas and claimed the attention on his friendship with Crow is part of a campaign to delegitimize the Supreme Court in the wake of blockbuster rulings on abortion, the Second Amendment and climate change.