United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has responded to a report detailing his failure to disclose luxury trips provided by a Republican megadonor — a possible violation of the law.
In a statement to US media on Friday, Thomas said he had “always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines”.
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His response came a day after a report from the nonprofit news publication ProPublica, which detailed regular trips taken by the staunchly conservative justice on the private jet and 162-foot (50-metre) yacht of real estate scion Harlan Crow.
The report said that Thomas’s failure to report two decades of travel in annual disclosures appeared to run afoul of a law that requires justices on the nine-member Supreme Court to disclose most gifts, including travel.
In the statement, Thomas admitted that he and his wife Virginia, known as Ginni, had taken “a number of family trips” with the Crows, whom he called “among our dearest friends”.
He said early in his tenure he had “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”.
He added that disclosure guidelines for the justices were regularly being updated, including last month. “It is, of course, my intent to follow this guidance in the future,” he said.
NEW: Clarence Thomas secretly accepted lavish luxury travel for decades from a billionaire businessman/GOP donor, in apparent repeat violation of ethics law.
— Justin Elliott (@JustinElliott) April 6, 2023
Judicial ethics experts and watchdogs were quick to push back.
While the policymaking body that oversees federal courts did release a series of clarifications last month on what was exempt from disclosure under “personal hospitality”, ethics experts noted the requirement to report gifted travel had previously been clear.
“The disclosure law applies to all three branches of government and clearly requires the reporting of free trips on private planes and yachts,” Kedric Payne, the senior director for ethics at the nonprofit government watchdog Campaign Legal Center, told Al Jazeera in an email.
“The personal hospitality exception only applies to meals, lodging and entertainment, not travel,” he said, adding that Thomas’s previous reporting of other private plane travel showed he “understood this”.
“Justice Thomas’ response raises more questions than answers and an investigation is needed,” he said. “If his excuse is that someone advised him to not comply with the law, they need to be held accountable, too.”
Meanwhile, a chorus of Democratic legislators has called for a probe into the matter, with Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying the report represented a “call to action”.
The highest court shouldn’t have the lowest ethics standards.
Today’s news was a reminder of that. pic.twitter.com/OzAU0WsRwd
— Sheldon Whitehouse (@SenWhitehouse) April 6, 2023
Meanwhile, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat who has led a push for stricter ethical standards on the Supreme Court, said the report “cries out” for an independent investigation.
Legislators have also called for the passage of a bill that would shore up standards for Supreme Court justices, who serve as the final arbiters of US law. Advocates have long said the justices are subject to less stringent requirements than lower court judges, despite having outsized influence on the lives of US residents.
The ProPublica report also said that Thomas has for years vacationed at a resort owned by Crow in the New York Adirondacks. As Crow owns the resort through a company, the news organisation reported, those stays may need to also be reported under the newly clarified guidelines.
But beyond the possible legal violations, the report also raised wider questions about the susceptibility of the Supreme Court to outside influence.
ProPublic reported that Thomas’s stays coincided with executives from influential companies, including Verizon and PricewaterhouseCoopers, as well as major Republican donors and a leader representing the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
A painting at the resort also shows Thomas chatting with Leonard Leo, the leader of the Federalist Society, a legal organisation that observers said has been instrumental in orchestrating the Supreme Court’s rightward lurch, the ProPublica report said.
On Friday, in response to Thomas’s statement, Senator Whitehouse wrote, “If you’re smoking cigars with Leonard Leo and other right-wing fixers, you should know they don’t just have business before the Court — their business IS the Court.”
Clarence Thomas seems to have completely disregarded his ethical obligations.
This is an enormous scandal. https://t.co/2W051TNsKb
— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) April 7, 2023
For his part, Crow, who has long used his immense wealth to support conservative causes, said in a statement to ProPublica that he was “unaware of any of our friends ever lobbying or seeking to influence Justice Thomas on any case, and I would never invite anyone who I believe had any intention of doing that”.
ProPublica’s report is the latest in a string of media reports over the years about Crow’s lavish gifts to the Thomases. Major news outlets have previously reported that Crow gave Thomas a $19,000 Bible that once belonged to famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, which the justice did list in his financial disclosures.
Crow also gave approximately $500,000 to Liberty Central, a group Ginni Thomas founded in 2009 that was linked to the conservative Tea Party movement, according to the news publication Politico.
Crow’s statement said Clarence and Ginni Thomas never asked for any of the “hospitality” he extended to them.
“We have never asked about a pending or lower court case, and Justice Thomas has never discussed one, and we have never sought to influence Justice Thomas on any legal or political issue,” he said.
For his part, Thomas has long been dogged by ethical questions, stretching back to his 1991 confirmation hearing, which was defined by sexual harassment allegations by former staffer Anita Hill. Thomas has continued to deny those accusations.
His wife’s work as a conservative political activist has also raised eyebrows, particularly after US media last year published 29 text messages showing Ginni Thomas urged former President Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to stand by the lie that the 2020 election had been stolen.
She called the election — which saw Trump lose to Democrat Joe Biden — the “greatest Heist of our History”.
Despite the revelations, Thomas has refused to recuse himself as the court weighed cases related to the Capitol attack on January 6, 2021, in which rioters stormed the seat of the US legislature, egged on by the false claims from Trump.