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Senate Democrats demand more details from Harlan Crow on gifts to Justice Thomas

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas listens during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in 2020.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas listens during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in 2020.

Updated May 9, 2023 at 3:44 PM ET

Pressure to force a wealthy GOP donor to explain his ties to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas escalated on Tuesday, with top Senate Democrats pushing for new disclosures in the face of Senate Republican opposition.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, have demanded new details from Texas billionaire developer Harlan Crow.

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In recent reporting, ProPublica detailed undisclosed gifts from Crow to Thomas, which include luxury trips and private school tuition for a Thomas relative. Crow did not immediately respond to requests for comment from NPR.

Wyden, D-Ore., in an April 24 letter requested Crow turn over tax information, and last week asked Crow to detail the Thomas gifts. Crow did not meet a May 8 deadline to turn over information, a committee aide said.

"I was disappointed but unsurprised by billionaire Republican activist Harlan Crow's refusal to respond to my questions," Wyden said in a statement released Tuesday. "The bottom line is that nobody can expect to get away with waving off Finance Committee oversight, no matter how wealthy or well-connected they may be. I will send a full response to Mr. Crow's attorney in the coming days."

The panel's top Republican, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, said in response that he would oppose any subpoenas or other tools used by Democrats to "undermine the independence" of the court. A group of 14 Senate Republicans also wrote to Wyden to object to what they called "unprecedented attacks."

"We reject this manufactured 'ethics crisis' at the Supreme Court as a ploy to further Democrats' efforts to undermine public confidence and change the makeup of the Court," said the letter signed by top Judiciary Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and other GOP members on the panel.

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Also this week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin and Democrats on the panel sent a letter to Crow, issuing a new series of demands to detail the extent of any gifts worth more than $415 that he has given toany Supreme Court justice or their family members. Durbin also demanded information from businesses affiliated with Crow's private jet, private yachtand an expansive property known as Camp Topridge in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

Crow and the related entities were given a May 22nd deadline to respond.

"Recent investigative reporting has identified multiple instances in which you or entities you own or control have made payments, purchased real estate, or provided gifts, travel, or other items of value to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and members of his family," Senate Judiciary Democrats said in their May 8th letter to Crow.

The letter goes onto say that many of the gifts, transactions and items of value had not been previously disclosed by Thomas in an apparent violation of the Supreme Court's "Statement on Ethics Principles and Practices" shared with Durbin by Chief Justice John Roberts on April 25th.

The Judiciary Democrats' letter goes on to say responses to their requests will aid "ongoing efforts to craft legislation strengthening the ethical rules and standards" for Supreme Court justices.

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In recent weeks, Chief Justice John Roberts declined an April 20th invitation from Durbin to appear before the panel or send another justice in his place. Last week, the Judiciary panel held a hearing on Supreme Court ethics.

The panel has been missing a key Democratic vote with the extended absence of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. For example, with Republican opposition, the Democratic-led panel cannot issue a related subpoena.

Durbin told NPR last week their hands were tied to issue a subpoena for Crow.

"I don't think he'll do it voluntarily and I would say that issuing a subpoena at this point is not possible," Durbin said.

He added that "part of the reason" was as a result of Feinstein's absence. On Tuesday, however, Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office confirmed the California Democrat will return to the senate Tuesday evening.

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Claudia Grisales
Claudia Grisales is a congressional correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.