- House Oversight Committee Democrats used a Wednesday hearing on third-party litigation funding to slam the Supreme Court and Justice Clarence Thomas over alleged failures to address ethics issues.
- Republican witnesses focused on the adverse effect third-party litigation has on the American legal system.
- “Americans see the personal gifts to justices from right-wing billionaire sugar daddies like Harlan Crow and Federalist Society dark money expenditures are fundamentally perverting judicial ethics and undermining justice and the rule of law,” Democrat Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin said during the hearing.
House Oversight Committee Democrats largely diverged from the topic of a Wednesday hearing — third-party litigation funding by left-wing groups — and instead spent their time talking about alleged ethics issues with the Supreme Court and Justice Clarence Thomas.
Republicans organized the hearing to investigate how activist-funded litigation efforts against corporations and agencies is used to push left-wing agendas, inviting witnesses like Johnson & Johnson Assistant General Counsel Aviva Wein and National Ocean Industries Association President Erik Milito to testify. Democrats, who previously held a hearing in the Senate on alleged Supreme Court ethics issues and attempted to push through legislation that would require the justices to adopt a code of ethics, used the hearing as another opportunity to bring attention to the issue and emphasized Justice Clarence Thomas’ alleged violations.
“If they want to talk about money in the court, let’s talk about Justice Clarence Thomas,” Democratic California Rep. Mike Garcia said.
He went on to list Harlan Crow’s gifts to Thomas, which included expense-paid trips and a $19,000 Bible that once belonged to Frederick Douglass.
“It must be the same Bible that the justice is using to take away rights from women and gay people,” Garcia said.
Thomas has said Crow is among his “dearest friends” and did not have business before the Supreme Court.
Democrat Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, the ranking member, claimed in his opening statement that people across America “are in an uproar about the money billionaires are spending to influence justices on the Supreme Court.”
“Americans see the personal gifts to justices from right-wing billionaire sugar daddies like Harlan Crow and Federalist Society dark money expenditures are fundamentally perverting judicial ethics and undermining justice and the rule of law,” he said.
Democratic Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly suggested during the hearing that a future investigation should center on Thomas. Multiple House Democrats sent a letter to Attorney General Merick Garland in August demanding the Justice Department launch an investigation.
Republican Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs accused Democrats of “trying to derail” the hearing because the problem of third-party litigation funding is “real.”
“These groups know that their tactics and goals are too extreme for the American people to support.
“So rather than use the electoral process, they are implementing their agenda through litigation against both the public and private sectors.”@RepJamesComer opens hearing to… pic.twitter.com/YkSq59dn9j
— Oversight Committee (@GOPoversight) September 13, 2023
Republican witnesses spoke about third-party litigation funding’s adverse effect on the legal system.
“Third-party litigation funding is a utility. It can be well-used or abused depending on the context,” Maya Steinitz, a Boston University School of Law professor, said, noting its downsides are “well understood and increasingly documented.”
“Litigation funding can structurally create conflicts of interest between lawyers and their clients, protract certain litigation, create incentives to bundle non-meritorious cases with meritorious cases when cases are aggregated rather than pursued individually, affect defendants due process rights, and of course, the risk of predatory financing practices,” she said.
“While litigation is an important tool to holding federal agencies accountable to their statutory responsibility, its misuse to disrupt energy development ultimately harms the American consumer more than anyone else and simply shifts production to foreign suppliers,” Milito said, pointing to a lawsuit over the Rice’s whale where a settlement resulted in withdrawing more than six million acres in the Gulf of Mexico from new leases for oil drilling.
Democrats also pointed during the hearing to billions of dollars Johnson & Johnson has had to pay over talcum powder litigation and its role in the opioids crisis, accusing Republicans of protecting corporate interests while ignoring billionaires allegedly influencing the Supreme Court.
For their witness, Democrats invited Kathlene Clark, a Washington University law professor who is frequently quoted in pieces alleging Supreme Court justices violated ethics rules, to testify.
Thomas released his 2022 financial disclosure in August. The attorney who helped prepare it, Berke Farah LLP managing partner Elliot Berke, said in a statement that he saw “no evidence to suggest [Thomas and other justices’] conduct was anything other than consistent with the rules in effect at the time the reports were filed, or due to inadvertent mistakes.”
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