Apr 6, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court ethics criticism grows louder with Clarence Thomas investigation

Clarence Thomas

Clarence Thomas in 2022. Photo: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A ProPublica investigation alleging Justice Clarence Thomas accepted luxury trips from an influential Republican megadonor is fueling calls for strict ethics guidelines on the Supreme Court.

Why it matters: Recent controversies involving big donors and chummy D.C. friendships have put a harsh spotlight on the high court as public trust in the institution falls to historic lows.

What's happening: For more than 20 years, Justice Clarence Thomas has gone on luxury vacations paid for by Harlan Crow — a Dallas real estate magnate and big GOP donor — without disclosing them as required, ProPublica revealed in an investigation published Thursday.

  • Thomas used Crow's private jet, vacationed on his superyacht and stayed at his private resort in the Adirondacks "every summer for more than two decades," ProPublica writes.
  • Crow was an early donor to Club for Growth, an anti-tax group, and is on the board of the American Enterprise Institute, a prominent conservative think tank.

The big picture: Democrats in Congress are pushing to require the Supreme Court to adopt a formal code of ethics for the first time.

  • Calls for the nation's highest court to adopt such a code have been building for years. Now Senate Democrats want to attach the adoption of a code of ethics to next year's funding bill.
  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a proponent of the Supreme Court ethics push, called for an independent investigation into Thomas.
  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said Thomas should be impeached: "this is what the Roberts court will be known for: rank corruption, erosion of democracy, and the stripping of human rights."

Between the lines: Supreme Court justices are still subject to financial disclosures and are required to report gifts they receive that are worth more than $415 in value.

  • "Thomas didn't report any of the trips ProPublica identified on his annual financial disclosures," ProPublica reported.
  • Ethics law experts told ProPublica that Thomas likely violated disclosure rules that require him to report travel on Crow's private jet and yacht.
  • They said Thomas should've disclosed the stays at Crow's resort in upstate New York because the Republican megadonor owns the property through a company, not personally.

Zoom out: This is not the first time ethics concerns have been raised about Thomas and other Supreme Court justices.

  • Earlier this year, a former colleague of Chief Justice John Roberts' wife, Jane, raised concerns to Congress that Jane's work as a legal recruiter could pose a conflict of interest for the Supreme Court, the New York Times reported.
  • Last year, Justice Samuel Alito was accused of improperly disclosing the outcome of a 2014 Supreme Court case about contraception to a donor of a nonprofit led by a prominent evangelical clergyman. Alito denied the leak.
  • Nearly 20 years ago, the late Justice Antonin Scalia was faced with accusations of bias and calls to recuse himself from a case after he took a duck-hunting trip with then-Vice President Dick Cheney.

What they're saying: In a statement to ProPublica, Crow said that he and his wife's "hospitality" toward the Thomases was "no different from the hospitality we have extended to our many other dear friends."

  • Crow added that he and his wife had "never sought to influence Justice Thomas on any legal or political issue."
  • The Supreme Court didn't immediately return a request for comment.

The bottom line: "The extent and frequency of Crow's apparent gifts to Thomas have no known precedent in the modern history of the U.S. Supreme Court," ProPublica writes.

Editor’s note: This article was corrected to say that Crow was an early donor to the Club for Growth, not Thomas.

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