September 18, 2023

Whitehouse, Durbin Request Complete Account of Gifts to Supreme Court Justices from Newly Implicated Right-Wing Billionaires

Committee’s oversight investigation continues in wake of recent bombshell ProPublica report detailing breadth of secret billionaire-funded gifts to Justice Thomas. Whitehouse and Durbin sent similar letters to Court fixer Leonard Leo and two other right-wing billionaires in July.

Washington, DC – Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Federal Courts, and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today publicly released requests the Senators made to two right-wing billionaires asking for more information regarding undisclosed payments or gifts of travel and lodging to Supreme Court Justices. 

“One after another, media reports have revealed serious and repeated ethics failures by various justices of the Supreme Court.  If the Chief Justice isn’t going to open an investigation and implement a strong code of ethics to restore the public’s trust in the institution, then it’s up to us in Congress to act.  We intend to continue our investigation until we know the full scope of the ethics violations at the Court.  Answers to these questions will guide the Committee’s continued work to pass legislation ensuring that our nation’s highest Court does not have the lowest ethical standards,” said Whitehouse and Durbin in a joint statement.

Congress has a well-established role in oversight of the judiciary and updating ethics laws that apply to federal officials, including justices and judges.  Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act, which the justices are subject to, and created through statute the Judicial Conference, which administers that law.

ProPublica reporting in August revealed that Justice Clarence Thomas failed to disclose years worth of lavish gifts from billionaire benefactors, including oil baron Paul Novelly and David Sokol, a former top executive at Berkshire Hathaway.  According to the report, Justice Thomas accepted but did not disclose free travel on private jets, helicopters, and yachts; lodging at commercial properties; and exclusive tickets and passes to high-profile sporting events.  Whitehouse and Durbin wrote to Novelly and Sokol demanding itemized lists of gifts given to any Justice of the Supreme Court or Justice’s family member. 

Whitehouse and Durbin wrote similar letters to Leonard Leo, Paul Singer and Robin Arkley II in July.  Those letters followed a report by ProPublica that found Justice Samuel Alito accepted and failed to disclose a luxury Alaskan fishing vacation with Singer and Arkley.  According to the report, Justice Alito’s billionaire-funded vacation was planned and attended by Leo, the orchestrator of right-wing influence campaigns around the Supreme Court.  

In May, Whitehouse and Durbin wrote two letters to billionaire Republican megadonor Harlan Crow seeking information on the full extent of gifts, travel, and lodging given by Mr. Crow and several holding companies to Justice Thomas and any other Supreme Court Justices, as well as information about who else with interests before the Supreme Court may have received private, undisclosed access to the Justices. 

The Senators’ letters are the latest in a longstanding oversight effort by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats to ensure transparency and accountability at the Supreme Court and in the federal judiciary.  Whitehouse and Durbin have been calling on the Supreme Court to adopt an enforceable code of conduct for more than a decade.  They first sent a letter to the Chief Justice on this issue 11 years ago.

In late July, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance Senator Whitehouse’s Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act to the full Senate. The bill would require Supreme Court justices to adopt a code of conduct, create a mechanism to investigate alleged violations of the code of conduct and other laws, improve disclosure and transparency when a justice has a connection to a party or amicus before the Court, and require justices to explain their recusal decisions to the public.

The Senators’ letter to Novelly can be found here and the letter to Sokol can be found here

Meaghan McCabe (Whitehouse),(202) 224-2921

Emily Hampsten (Durbin), (202) 228-5643

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