ProPublica Thursday released a report purporting to show substantial, unreported gifts accepted by US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. ProPublica, a US-based news source, relied upon flight records, internal memos and individuals present at specific events to compile the allegations. If true, the report raises potentially serious ethical violations.
The issues uncovered by the report center Thomas’s acceptance of flights, vacations and yacht trips from “Republican megadonor” Harlan Crow. The report alleges Thomas accepted these gifts over the past two decades. A recent trip to Indonesia, for example, was valued over $500,000.
Despite the alleged gifts, Thomas’ most recent 2021 financial disclosure listed no gifts or explanations of any of the alleged improprieties. Virginia Canter, a former ethics lawyer, commented, “[W]hen a justice’s lifestyle is being subsidized by the rich and famous, it absolutely corrodes public trust.” This is especially true for federal judges with lifetime appointments.
In an unsigned statement, Crow defended his relationship with Thomas. He stated that he treats all his “dear friends” the same. Nor has he ever “asked about a pending or lower court case, and Justice Thomas has never discussed one.” Crow made clear the travel and vacations in no way were meant to influence the justice or lobby for support.
While Thomas did not respond to a request from ProPublica for comment, he did release a statement via the Supreme Court’s public information office. Thomas said:
Early in my tenure at the Court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable. I have endeavored to follow that counsel throughout my tenure, and have always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines.
While other branches of the federal government and lower federal courts are bound by codes of ethics, the US Supreme Court is largely left to police itself. An issue brought to light in 2019 by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan.
In response to ProPublica’s report, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for an “enforceable code of conduct” for Supreme Court justices. Durbin said, “The highest court in the land shouldn’t have the lowest ethical standard.”