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Dems approve subpoenas in response to Supreme Court controversies

The high court has confronted several tough-to-defend ethics controversies this year, leading the Senate Judiciary Committee to approve new subpoenas.


The U.S. Supreme Court has confronted several tough-to-defend ethics controversies over the last several months, most notably difficult questions surrounding Justice Clarence Thomas. The alleged lapses left many members of Congress with all kinds of questions.

On Thursday, senators took a step toward getting some answers. NBC News reported:

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted to approve subpoenas for conservative activists Harlan Crow and Leonard Leo over their involvement with Supreme Court ethics lapses. The subpoenas were approved by 11 Democratic senators; no other senators voted.

Republicans on the panel, who’ve spent the year downplaying the Supreme Court’s scandals, would’ve voted against the measures, but they instead stormed out of the room when the Democratic majority circumvented a GOP plan to introduce 177 amendments.

The proposed amendments were not, of course, serious attempts at governing. Rather, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee were trying to disrupt and delay the process to help protect conservative allies.

Regardless, the vote to approve the subpoenas marks the latest step in a lengthy process. It was in early April when ProPublica first reported on Thomas and the lavish, undisclosed benefits he’s received from Crow, a prominent Republican megadonor. About a month later, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee reached out to Crow with questions about the alleged lapses.

In the months that followed, Thomas’ benefactor and Democratic senators traded pointed correspondence several times, including an instance in June in which Crow and his attorneys came up with a provocative claim: As my MSNBC colleague Jordan Rubin explained, Crow argued that the Judiciary Committee’s members are “not allowed to investigate him or, by extension, Thomas and the Supreme Court.”

With this level of obstinance in mind, Democrats concluded that they didn’t have much of a choice: If those directly involved with the Supreme Court’s controversies weren’t prepared to cooperate with the investigation, the panel would have to issue subpoenas in response to months of stonewalling.

The latest developments will not necessarily resolve the matter. In theory, those who receive the subpoenas are expected to honor them. In practice, no one would be especially surprised if these latest subpoenas are ignored, which would lead to additional debates over possible contempt proceedings.

In fact, Leo issued a written statement after the vote that read, "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."

As for why Republicans have so little interest in legitimate ethics controversies surrounding the Supreme Court, GOP members have said very little. That’s probably because a press release that said, “We don’t care about far-right justices credibly accused of wrongdoing” probably wouldn’t go over especially well.