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D.C. Memo: Justice Clarence Thomas’ pricey trips put Supreme Court ethics under scrutiny

Plus: Rep. Dean Phillips leads charge to pressure Dianne Feinstein to resign.

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas
Erin Schaff/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON – Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said this week he plans to hold a hearing into “the need to restore confidence in the Supreme Court’s ethical standards” following revelations that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas accepted luxury vacations from a major GOP donor, but failed to disclose them.

The hearing, which Durbin said would be held “in the coming days,” would provide a peek into the ethics policy and disclosure requirements required of those who sit on the nation’s highest court and would give Judiciary Committee member Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., an opportunity to publicly press for reforms.

Last month, the Judicial Conference updated its guidance on financial disclosures, but lawmakers like Durbin say more action is needed. Yet, because of the separation of powers doctrine, legal scholars have argued that Congress doesn’t have the authority to impose ethics rules on the Supreme Court. And any bill that would try to impose disclosure requirements on the Supreme Court may not make it through the GOP-led House.

Harlan Crow, the conservative Texas real estate billionaire who lavished trips and gifts to Thomas, has given millions of dollars to Republican candidates and Republican political action committees. Recent contributions include nearly $185,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee in the most recent election cycle, when Rep. Tom Emmer, R-6th District, headed the group.

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But Harlan also donated to the campaigns of a handful of Democrats, including Don Samuels, who ran against Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-5th District, last year in a Democratic primary.  Harlan gave the Samuels campaign $2,400.

Other Democrats who recently received contributions from Crow include former Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Those donations were made when the two were blocking a major Democratic bill that would boost clean energy.

Dean Phillips says Dianne Feinstein must go

Rep. Dean Phillips, D-3rd District, and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., raised eyebrows this week in saying longtime Sen. Diane Feinstein should resign, touching off a firestorm of criticisms from fellow Democrats.

Democrats included former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others questioned why House members where weighing in an issue that involves the U.S. Senate.

“It’s interesting to me,” Pelosi told reporters. “I don’t know what political agendas are at work that are going after Sen. Feinstein in that way. I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., also said the calls by Khanna and Phillips to resign were hypocritical.

“There have been male senators who have been away from the chamber for quite a period of time … Mitch McConnell, for instance, has been out of the Senate for a few months,”

Murphy said. McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, has been recovering from a fall.

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Feinstein, D-Calif., has been absent from the Senate since late February after being diagnosed with shingles. Her absence, along with the absence of Sen. John Fetterman, D-Penn., who was hospitalized with depression, but is returning to work next week, left the Senate evenly split, 49-49 between Democrats and Republicans and also denying Democrats a majority in the Senate Judiciary Committee, stalling nominations.

Feinstein, who at 89 is the oldest member of the Senate, announced in February she would not run for reelection in 2024.

But Khanna said she should leave the Senate immediately. He was the first to say Feinstein should go.

“It’s time for @Sen.Feinstein to resign,” Khanna tweeted. “We need to put the country ahead of personal loyalty. While she has had a lifetime of public service, it is obvious she can no longer fulfill her duties. Not speaking out undermines our credibility as elected representatives of the people.”

Phillips quickly seconded that tweet.

“I agree with @RoKhanna,” Phillips tweeted. “Senator Feinstein is a remarkable American whose contributions to our country are immeasurable. But I believe it’s now a dereliction of duty for those who agree to remain quiet.”

Phillips was the first Democrat to say that President Biden should not run for re-election and that “the country would be well served by a new generation of compelling, well-prepared, dynamic Democrats to step up.”

Phillips also called for new leadership in the House before Pelosi, 83, and former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, 83, and former Democratic House Whip Jim Clyburn, 82, stepped down last year, paving the way for younger leaders.

Feinstein put out a statement shortly after Khanna and Phillips pressed for her resignation.

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“When I was first diagnosed with shingles, I expected to return by the end of the March work period. Unfortunately, my return to Washington has been delayed due to continued complications related to my diagnosis,” Feinstein said in her statement. “I intend to return as soon as possible once my medical team advises that it’s safe for me to travel.”

The California senator, however, also asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to ask the Senate to allow another Democratic senator to temporarily take her place on the Senate Judiciary Committee “until I’m able to resume my committee work.”

This and that

At a speech next Monday on Wall Street, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is expected to roll out some of the GOP’s demands that would win Republican support that’s needed to increase the debt limit.

The plan includes limiting the growth of all non-defense spending to 1% annually next year, prohibiting student loan forgiveness, instituting work requirements for food stamps and other social programs and implementing a House Republican energy plan that includes Rep. Pete Stauber’s proposal to streamline and speed permitting of mining on federal land.

The GOP plan will also seek to claw back unspent federal COVID relief money that may be in state and city coffers. It’s unclear how much unobligated money Minnesota and its municipalities have, if any.

Meanwhile, national Democrats this week picked the Midwest over the South as the site for its 2024 national convention.

Both Chicago and Atlanta were in the running, but concerns over non-union employees of Atlanta hotels and the promise Chicago would raise money to fund the convention put the Windy City over the top.

“The DNC is returning to the Midwest, a critical Democratic stronghold: Illinois along with Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota – part of the ‘blue wall’ – were crucial to the 2020 victory of President Biden and Vice President Harris and to Democrats’ success in the 2022 midterm elections,” the Democratic National Committee said in a statement.