US ethics groups hail Senate subpoenas for Leonard Leo and Harlan Crow

Watchdog groups applauded Democrats on the US Senate judiciary committee after they voted on Thursday to subpoena the influential rightwing donor Harlan Crow and activist Leonard Leo, for information regarding gifts to the conservative justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas that have fueled an ethics scandal.

Brett Edkins, of Stand Up America, said the committee “sent a strong message that the rich and powerful cannot evade scrutiny or accountability”.

Caroline Ciccone, president of Accountable.US, said “Leonard Leo and other rightwing powerbrokers” had been told “corruption on the court must end”.

In a statement released on Thursday afternoon, Leo said he will not comply with any congressional subpoena.

“Senate judiciary committee Democrats have been destroying the supreme court; now they are destroying the Senate. I will not cooperate with this unlawful campaign of political retribution,” he said.

Democrats in control of the committee pushed the subpoenas through, over Republican objections.

Republican tactics at the Thursday hearing included a walkout by all but one party member and attempts to create procedural disorder including filing 177 amendments. Ultimately only 11 senators, all Democrats, voted on the subpoenas. All approved.

Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, accused Democrats of “breaking the Senate judiciary committee rules to issue subpoenas as part of a witch-hunt against supreme court justices they don’t like”.

John Cornyn, of Texas, said the committee chair, Dick Durbin of Illinois, had “destroyed one of the most important committees in the United States Senate”.

Durbin said: “I’m only seeking subpoenas for two people who have refused to comply with this committee’s oversight request for months.”

Thomas, the longest-serving justice, has found himself at the centre of the swirling scandal, the subject of several reports, particularly from the non-profit newsroom ProPublica, about gifts from Crow and other donors that he did not declare, including payment of school fees, a property purchase, luxury travel and resort stays and more.

Ciccone said: “Thanks to billionaire benefactor Harlan Crow and matchmaker Leonard Leo, a full-blown corruption crisis has plagued our supreme court for months. The justices’ countless ethics violations – from undisclosed lavish gifts to influence-peddling in elite circles – have caused public trust in the court to plummet to record lows.

“But despite growing calls for reform, Chief Justice Roberts has refused to act.”

John Roberts has resisted calls to testify before the Senate committee.

Earlier this month, his court did publish its first code of ethics: a 14-page document signed by all nine justices on a panel dominated 6-3 by conservatives.

Observers were quick to point out that consistent with previous practice, in which supreme court justices were nominally subject to federal guidelines but in effect governed themselves, the new code lacks any mechanism for enforcement.

Subpoenas issued by congressional committees can be enforced via the threat of charges of criminal contempt. Congress can also seek civil judgments.

Edkins said: “Billionaires like Harlan Crow believe they can buy loyalty on the supreme court, turning our nation’s highest court into a political plaything for the ultra-wealthy and well-connected … we applaud Chair Durbin and committee Democrats for reaffirming Congress’s role as a co-equal branch of government and confronting the corruption on our nation’s highest court.

“The American people deserve answers. Today’s vote brings us one step closer to understanding the full scope of Justice Thomas and Alito’s wrongdoing and restoring honesty and integrity to the supreme court.”