(Bloomberg) -- Senate Democrats voted to subpoena Texas billionaire Harlan Crow and conservative fundraiser Leonard Leo as part of its ongoing investigation into the ethics scandal swirling around the US Supreme Court. 

The move came after hours of bickering with Republicans, who claimed the committee’s efforts amounted to a political vendetta against the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin pulled a surprise procedural maneuver to authorize the subpoenas over GOP protests, leading nearly all the Republicans on the committee to walk out of the hearing room.

Democrats said the party-line vote authorizing subpoenas for Crow and Leo was necessary because both men had declined to cooperate with the committee’s requests for information. Crow, a GOP megadonor, and Leo, a top official with the Federalist Society, have come under scrutiny for funding and organizing lavish trips and luxury gifts for Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. 

Leo has played a central role in shaping the Supreme Court’s rightward lurch. Leo helped shepherd through many of the conservative justices sitting on the bench today, orchestrating public relations campaigns to boost their profiles and preparing them for contentious Senate hearings. He helped to mainstream the agenda that, among other things, led to the end of federal abortion rights and increased access to guns in the US.

Durbin, of Illinois, said the two men “are central players in the ethics challenges facing the court.” 

‘Stonewalled’ Congress

Durbin claimed Crow and Leo had “stonewalled” Congress after the committee requested extensive information about the private jet trips, lodging and access to exclusive clubs provided to the justices, in addition to details about gifts and special treatment reported by investigative news outlet ProPublica over the past year.

In a statement, Crow’s office said the subpoena was “invalid.”

“Despite the unenforceability of the subpoena, Mr. Crow remains willing to engage with the Committee in good faith, just as he has consistently done throughout this process,” said the statement. 

A representative for Leo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Republicans on the committee pushed back aggressively against the Democrats’ subpoena efforts, filing 177 amendments to the subpoenas in an effort to bog down the process. 

“This is garbage,” said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. “You’re driving the committee into a ditch.” 

Texas Senator Ted Cruz described Crow and Leo as “extraordinary patriots.” 

If Leo and Crow defy the subpoenas, the legal fight could get messy – and could ultimately be appealed to the high court itself. Now that the subpoenas are authorized by the committee’s Democratic majority, the panel can either seek civil enforcement of the subpoenas in court – a move that would require a vote of the full Senate – or they could refer the failure to comply directly to the Justice Department for prosecution.

Republicans after the vote questioned whether it was valid under committee rules, which typically require more than two minority-party lawmakers to be present for a vote.

“You have just destroyed one of the most important committees in the United States Senate,” said Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn. “Congratulations on destroying the United States Senate Judiciary Committee.”

Code of Conduct

The Supreme Court adopted a code of conduct for the first time earlier this month, a move that Senate Democrats applauded but said did not go far enough to resolve the concerns about the justices’ relationships with major donors and billionaires.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the committee’s action Thursday “an important step to restore America’s confidence in the Supreme Court.”

“The American people are tired of seeing reports of Supreme Court justices accepting lavish gifts and vacations from billionaires and MAGA extremists, and then these same justices turn around and gut affirmative action, block student loan relief, and so much else,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.

(Updates with Crow statement in seventh paragraph.)

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.