Senate Democrats eye a hearing on Clarence Thomas as Republicans shrug off gift revelations

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WASHINGTON — Key Senate Democrats are considering a hearing about Supreme Court ethics in the wake of revelations that Justice Clarence Thomas received previously undisclosed gifts and luxury travel from billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the “20 years of gift travel on yachts and chartered planes was outrageous.” He added that the failure to disclose Crow’s real estate deals and his reported purchase of Thomas’ mother’s home was “beyond anything I could imagine at the Supreme Court level.”

It’s not clear when the hearing will take place or what the scope would be. Durbin said he has “a number of things in mind” he is discussing with committee members, but he was pessimistic about getting Thomas to testify.

“Of course, I would like to, but I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said when he was asked whether he'd like to hear from Thomas directly. “We’re going to discuss the agenda and the program.”

A Democratic aide noted that issuing a subpoena would require a majority vote by the committee, which the party doesn’t have with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., out indefinitely on medical leave. “So that option is out of the question,” the aide said.

Durbin said Democrats are putting the onus on Chief Justice John Roberts to “accept the responsibility of the court” to investigate Thomas’ conduct and make “a change in approach on ethics.”

“Every other federal judge in America except for nine in the Supreme Court is bound by an ethical standard, which is important,” he said, adding that members of Congress are bound by much higher ethical standards than justices are.

Republicans on the committee shrugged off the Thomas news, as first reported by ProPublica, saying it wasn’t a big deal.

“He’s going to have to amend his financial disclosures,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. “It’s not unusual to have to file an amended form. One of the allegations is he didn’t disclose $35,000 from the sale of his family home to Harlan Crow ... so you have to file an amendment on that.”

Asked whether he was concerned about the ethics of the situation, Kennedy said: “No. It happens all the time.”

He added, “Justices — like senators, like reporters — are entitled to have friends.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the Judiciary Committee, which he sits on, doesn’t need to investigate Thomas.

“The judiciary is an independent branch of government, and they have their own rules. And I trust that that will be handled by the Supreme Court and by the judiciary,” Cornyn said. “There are senators who accept hospitality on a personal basis and don’t necessarily disclose that. But I’m for people following the rules.”

Asked Tuesday about Thomas, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the court can handle the issue itself.

“The Supreme Court and the court system is a whole separate part of our Constitution,” McConnell said. “I have total confidence in the chief justice of the United States to deal with his court’s internal issues.”

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said he, too, trusts the Supreme Court to address the matter on its own, as it sees fit.

An exception was Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who said he finds the revelations problematic.

“You know, if the reports are accurate, it stinks," he said Monday.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., laughed out loud when he was asked about the Republicans' argument.

“They know that he’s a billionaire, right?" Whitehouse, a senior member of the committee, said of Crow. "They know that he’s politically active. They know that he’s on the board of entities that actually filed briefs in the Supreme Court. They know that he’s contributed to groups that have helped pick right-wing judges. This is a guy who is interested in the court — and not as a casual observer. There is a lot more going on when you mix the cocktail of right-wing billionaires, dark money, amenable justices and the law.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said the series of revelations about Thomas “really needs to be a red alert moment for our democracy.”

“We fight over everything, but why on Earth would we choose to fight over whether a Supreme Court justice can be paid on a regular basis by a party that has constant interests before the court? This is black and white,” he said. “It’s just kind of sad that we’re fighting over this and the Republicans feel like they have to defend Justice Thomas’ conduct. It’s just absolutely outrageous.”

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