WASHINGTON (CN) — Justice Clarence Thomas is under the microscope for potential violations of federal law by failing to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of luxury trips gifted to him by Republican megadonor Harlan Crow.
Taken every year for the past two decades, the all-expenses-paid trips with the Dallas-based real estate mogul came to light Thursday in a report from ProPublica. In contrast to claims by Thomas that his vacation preferences lean toward RV parks and Walmart parking lots, the report says the George H.W. Bush appointee regularly chartered Crow’s Bombardier Global 5000 jet and took advantage of his 162-foot yacht while on an island-hopping vacation.
Just one of Thomas’ vacations with Crow was reported to tally over $500,000, well above the $415 threshold for gifts that judges must report under federal law. Thomas did not disclose that trip, however, or any of the dozens of others he took with Crow.
“He's not above the law,” Lawrence Gostin, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law and Georgetown Law, said in a phone interview. “The Supreme Court isn't the law and the members of the court have to comply with the rule of law in the same way.”
Charges from the attorney general would be punishable by a $50,000 fine, but legal experts doubt Thomas will face that level of reprimand.
“To my knowledge it's never happened before, and it's highly unlikely, and it would be very destabilizing for our nation,” Gostin said. “But remember, we have a former president — a recent former president — who's under indictment and has a special counsel. We have a current president with a special counsel. So if former and current presidents can be subject to the rule of law, it would be head-spinning to think that a justice of the Supreme Court wouldn't be or shouldn't be.”
The Supreme Court did not respond to questions regarding the allegations. ProPublica also reported that Thomas did not respond to a list of questions.
Legal experts say the court’s actions on these allegations will be indicative of the court’s values as a whole.
“It's somewhat uncharted territory to see whether the Supreme Court at this point in time would say, ‘well, in fact, we're not truly subject to these laws. We were only honoring them by virtue of our own voluntary choice, but, because of separation of powers issues, that can't be enforced against us,’” Caroline Fredrickson, a distinguished visitor from practice at Georgetown Law, said in a phone interview. “I think that would be a really bad look for the court. … This kind of puts the stake through the heart of the idea that these justices are ethical, moral and follow some kind of a code of conduct.”
It's not yet clear if the reporting will prompt an investigation like the one Chief Justice John Roberts launched last year following the leak of the landmark opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned Roe v. Wade.
“I think the Supreme Court was certainly very energized about pursuing the leakers of the Dobbs decision,” Fredrickson said. “Why don't they investigate this? This is the most profound ethical breach I think we've seen from the court in a long time.”
Some on the left have called for Thomas’ resignation or impeachment.
“This is beyond party or partisanship,” Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. “This degree of corruption is shocking — almost cartoonish. Thomas must be impeached.”
The progressive advocacy group Alliance for Justice said Thomas should leave the bench and called on Roberts and the U.S. Courts Judicial Conduct Committee to investigate the reported ethical breach.