The billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow refused this week to comply with the Senate Judiciary Committee’s request to hand over information about gifts and travel he provided to Justice Clarence Thomas.
“After careful consideration, we do not believe the committee has the authority to investigate Mr. Crow’s personal friendship with Justice Clarence Thomas,” Michael D. Bopp, Mr. Crow’s lawyer, wrote to the panel on Monday.
Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the chairman of the committee, balked at the rejoinder, saying in a statement on Tuesday that Mr. Crow had not provided a “credible response” to his panel’s requests.
Why It Matters
The refusal of Mr. Crow’s representatives to turn over the information is not surprising, but it is certain to intensify the fight between Democratic lawmakers and the Supreme Court over what ethics standards should apply to the court.
“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,” Mr. Durbin said in his statement. “He is wrong.”
Mr. Bopp effectively argued that the committee had no legitimate use for the information.
“Most importantly, Congress does not have the constitutional power to impose ethics rules and standards on the Supreme Court,” he wrote.
If Democrats see themselves as being stonewalled, they could step up their efforts and even try to subpoena records from Mr. Crow, a move that Mr. Durbin has so far been reluctant to take.
A subpoena could prompt a significant test of the separation of powers and the authority of Congress to impose rules on the Supreme Court.
Reporting by ProPublica and others found that Justice Thomas had for years been provided luxury travel by Mr. Crow, who also purchased real estate from him and paid private school tuition for his relative — arrangements that were not reported on the justice’s financial disclosures. Justice Thomas has said he did not think he had to report the travel because of an exemption for personal hospitality from friends.
Members of the Supreme Court have said they are not bound by the disclosure rules that apply to the rest of the federal judiciary but voluntarily abide by them. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. declined an invitation to appear before the committee this month to discuss ethics requirements for the court.
Mr. Durbin said the committee would quickly respond “more fully” to Mr. Crow’s position and would “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.”
With Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, again voting as a member of the Judiciary Committee after a monthslong absence, Mr. Durbin could conceivably muster a majority for a subpoena. Republicans on the panel have accused Democrats of unfairly attacking the justices because of the court’s current conservative majority.