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John Cornyn and Ted Cruz flee U.S. Senate hearing as Democrats vote on Harlan Crow subpoena

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, speaks to reporters as he walks to the Senate chamber at the Capitol Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023.
Jose Luis Magana
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, speaks to reporters as he walks to the Senate chamber at the Capitol Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz were among several Republicans who fled a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting Thursday to protest subpoenaing Dallas-based conservative donor Harlan Crow.

The committee’s Democrats are seeking records over payments, gifts and travel Crow reportedly provided Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, some of which were not initially listed on financial disclosures. The committee’s GOP members cast the subpoena authorization as a partisan attack against one of the most conservative members of the court and a private citizen.

The Republicans left the committee room as the roll call vote was taking place. Committee rules require a quorum of nine members including at least two members of the minority. But since the Republicans left during the vote, it’s unclear whether they counted toward a quorum.

All 11 Democrats voted to authorize the subpoena and declared the move adopted.

If the vote holds, it gives the committee the power to issue subpoenas without the approval of the full Senate. Still, if Crow refuses to comply, enforcing any subpoenas will require a full Senate vote — which the committee’s top Republican, Lindsey Graham, said would never pass the required 60-vote threshold.

The move to subpoena comes as the Supreme Court faces calls for ethics reforms over lavish donations from partisan figures. Crow reportedly showered Thomas, one of the most influential figures in modern conservatism, with luxury vacations and paid for Thomas’ close relative to attend private school. Thomas originally did not list any of the gifts on his annual financial disclosures.

The committee also authorized to subpoena Leonard Leo, chair of the board of the Federalist Society. The group is one of the most active organizations in getting conservative judges appointed to federal courts.

“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," Leo said in a statement. Crow did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Graham derided the move to subpoena as “garbage” and a “jihad” against the court. Republicans filed 177 amendments to the subpoena resolution in an attempt to slow or block the measure.

During an earlier meeting of the Judiciary Committee, Chair Dick Durbin, D-Illinois pushed back at the idea that Democrats were targeting individuals in a partisan manner, saying their inquiry was part of Congress’ constitutional oversight duty.

“This committee is not engaged in a vendetta against conservatives,” Durbin said. “We are not seeking a subpoena authorization for political points.”

Durbin pointed out that oversight and ethics reforms in the court were bipartisan priorities for years. Cornyn introduced in 2021 the Courthouse Ethics and Transparency Act, and Cruz cosponsored. The bill required judges to disclose more financial transactions and created a searchable database of the disclosures. President Joe Biden signed it into law in May 2022.

Crow made his billions as a real estate developer and has donated handsomely to conservative causes and candidates, including Cornyn and Cruz. He has asserted that he never leveraged his gifts to sway Thomas in any way.

Still, the scale of the gifts has made Democrats uneasy and led to calls for stricter ethics rules for the court that would be more in line with those for members of Congress.

Democrats on the committee have already asked Crow for more information about his gifts. Durbin said in a statement “Crow claimed he was willing to cooperate, but ultimately made only a limited and insufficient offer.”

The Judiciary Committee advanced legislation to the full Senate in July that would require the Supreme Court to adopt a code of conduct. The bill, dubbed the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act, would also amp up disclosure requirements for when justices have ties to anyone going before the court and require justices to explain any recusals.

Every Republican on the committee voted against the bill. The full Senate has not yet voted on the bill.

The Supreme Court introduced its own code of conduct on Nov. 13. The justices said in a statement when they unveiled the code of conduct that “The Court has long had the equivalent of common law ethics rules.”

“The absence of a Code, however, has led in recent years to the misunderstanding that the Justices of this Court, unlike all other jurists in this country, regard themselves as unrestricted by any ethics rules,” the statement said.

But the guidelines left enforcement up to the justices themselves. Durbin said Thursday that it “falls far short of what we expect for the highest court of the land.”

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Matthew Choi | The Texas Tribune