WASHINGTON (CN) — Just as he did for luxury trips and real estate deals with the billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow, Justice Clarence Thomas made no note in his annual mandated disclosures that Crow paid to put Thomas’ grandnephew through school.
ProPublica detailed the allegations in a new report Thursday about school tuition bills for Thomas’ grandnephew Mark Martin — whom Thomas took legal custody of when he was 6 years old. Though Thomas neglected to disclose the payments that are estimated to exceed $150,000, his disclosure form in 2002 did note an education gift from another couple totaling $5,000.
“This was another example of either sloppiness or failure to read the law closely or pay attention to it closely by Justice Thomas because it appears as the legal guardian for the nephew that he would have been responsible for paying for schooling and this counts as a gift to Thomas, which he would have had to report under the Ethics and Government Act of 1978,” Amanda Frost, a research professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, said in a phone call.
Supreme Court justices are required to report most gifts given not only to them but to their spouses and dependent children. Thomas appeared to think payments for Martin’s education needed to be reported because he did so in 2002 when money came in from another source. It is not clear why the payments from Crow did not receive the same treatment.
“There seems to be a bit of a pattern here of Justice Thomas not properly disclosing gifts from this specific person,” Delaney Marsco, senior legal counsel for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, said in a phone call.
The court did not respond to questions regarding Thomas’ failure to disclose the tuition payments.
Thomas took custody of Martin when the boy's father went to prison in connection with a drug case, and the boy moved from Georgia to Virginia to live with the justice. Thomas, who himself was taken in by his grandparents at a young age, gained legal custody of Martin in 1998.
ProPublica quotes Martin as saying that he was a party to the lavish vacations Thomas took with the Texas real estate mogul — reporting that the news outfit broke last month. These included trips to Crow’s private home in the Adirondacks and cruises on his superyacht.
Disclosing a previously unreported trip, Martin said Crow took the justice and his family on a cruise on his yacht in Russia and the Baltics where the group was joined by Chris DeMuth, who was president of the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute.
During his junior year of high school, Martin attended a therapeutic boarding school in Georgia. Hidden Lake Academy’s tuition at the time added up to around $73,000. When the school later filed for bankruptcy, a bank statement would reveal a $6,200 payment — the school’s monthly tuition rate — from Crow Holdings LLC. The payment was marked “Mark Martin.” An administrator at the school told ProPublica Crow "picked up the tab" for Martin's tuition.
After Martin's one-year stint at Hidden Lake, Thomas also sent the teen to a military boarding school in the Shenandoah Valley with a price tag between $25,000 to $30,000 per year. Randolph-Macon Academy also happened to be the alma mater of Crow.
Thomas came under the microscope last month after ProPublica revealed that Crow paid for hundreds of thousands of dollars in luxury vacations that the justice failed to disclose. Crow met Thomas after the conservative justice had already taken his seat on the high court’s bench. He told The Dallas Morning News that he offered Thomas a ride on his private jet to a scheduled speech in Dallas, and they've been friends since. Thomas did not refute reporting of the unreported luxury gifts but instead claimed his colleagues advised him that they were considered exempt from disclosure rules.
Subsequent reporting revealed Crow also made an unreported six-figure real estate purchase from Thomas. Crow bought three Georgia properties that Thomas and his family had a stake in for $133,363. The billionaire also continued to pay the rent for Thomas’ mother as well as renovations to the property where she still lives.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee called a hearing to review the high court’s ethics in the wake of these reports. The justices are bound by federal laws regarding financial disclosures but are not required to follow a code of ethics like other members of the judiciary and government officials.
“The reason why the reports are so important is because that's the only window that we really have as members of the public into what kind of influences might be brought to bear on the justices,” Marsco said.
The reporting unveiling Crow’s gifts to Thomas alleges potential violations of disclosure law, but ethics experts say Thomas’ behavior would also violate the code that applies to lower court judges. This is because judges are not only supposed to avoid actual impropriety but even the appearance of it.
“Justice Thomas would clearly violate that by creating this special relationship with a man that keeps giving him lavish gifts, creating that impression of influence … but even if Harlan Crow isn’t influencing him, it creates that appearance,” Frost said.
The Supreme Court’s lack of an ethics code has been a concern for court watchers long before the recent revelations about Thomas and Crow’s relationship. The topic is particularly salient, however, to the public’s opinion of the justices since so many people encounter these guidelines in their daily lives.
“The public isn't stupid,” Marsco said. “It very much looks like disclosure for thee, not for me.”
Chief Justice John Roberts refused an invitation to testify at the this week's Senate hearing on the matter, citing separation of powers concerns. Instead of testimony, Roberts provided the committee with principles and practices to which all the justices “subscribe” to. All nine of the justices signed the attached code restating guidelines they purport to already follow.
Without input from the court, lawmakers appeared divided on party lines during Tuesday’s hearing. Democrats on the committee pushed for a binding ethics code for the justices, as well as a mechanism to enforce rules for the justices. Republicans meanwhile said enforcing a code for the justices was a partisan attack following unfavorable rulings.
Court watchers have worried that ethical violations will deepen mistrust of the court as a whole.
“The sort of drip-by-drip stories about Thomas is harming a court as an institution and, ideally, the court should respond, but if not Congress should,” Frost said.
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