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Thomas’ luxury vacations footed by GOP megadonor test boundaries on high court ethics

Legal experts weighed in on the blockbuster report and what it says about the high court's accountability standards.

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. 


“Justice Thomas should resign,” Rakim H.D. Brooks, the group's president, said in a statement. “If he fails to do so, Congress is required by its oath to protect and defend the Constitution to hold robust hearings to determine just how far this rot goes and how badly it has compromised the fair administration of justice.” 

Thomas’ adherence to ethics guidelines — or lack thereof —  became the subject of discussion around high court reform after text messages were unearthed that show his wife lobbying former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows via text message to pursue efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Ginni Thomas, a longtime conservative activist, has maintained that she does not discuss politics or cases before the court with her husband. When legal challenges to the 2020 election results failed, Justice Thomas was a dissenting vote.

The Supreme Court justices are not bound by an ethics code like lower court judges; rather, they are said to “consult” ethics guidelines. Demands by court-reform advocates for the court or Congress to rectify the justices’ lack of an ethics code have so far been unsuccessful.

Experts say Thomas' apparent violation of disclosure laws, which are binding, demonstrates the need for stricter rules for the justices. 

"It's clear that the personal hospitality rules the judiciary adopted last month do not go far enough: The Supreme Court and lower courts need the same, if not stricter, gift and travel rules than what members of Congress have,” Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, said in a statement. “That means a judicial ethics office to pre-approve sponsored trips, no matter who — even a 'friend' — is footing the bill, and judges and justices should be required to file a report, within 30 days of their return, listing the names of other guests and the dollar amounts for every mode of transportation taken, plus lodging and meals.”

Current reporting guidelines require the justices to report any gifts once a year. If a justice were to be gifted a vacation tomorrow, Roth said, the public wouldn’t hear about it until June 2024. 

“Such an unnecessary delay makes real oversight impossible,” Roth said. 

Calls for reform at the conservative supermajority court have mostly come from Democrats. Reform advocates urged lawmakers to consider if a liberal justice had done the same thing as Thomas. 

“When considering what steps should be taken to further investigate these trips, it might be helpful to imagine if today's news was not about Justice Thomas and Harlan Crow but about, say, Justice Sotomayor and a major Democratic donor,” Roth said. “My guess is that House Republicans would spring into action so quickly they'd forget about Hunter Biden for a while.”

Court watchers say the justices’ adherence to a code of ethics would help bolster the institution’s legitimacy, while repeated violations do the opposite. 

“The whole idea of the rule of law is that everybody has to follow it, and nobody's above the law,” Gostin said. “I would say the same thing: Nobody's above ethical codes. This is an egregious breach of ethics and public trust and is a dagger in the heart, I think, of the legitimacy of the Supreme Court.” 

ProPublica’s reporting suggests Thomas has been failing to comply with disclosure laws for two decades. Experts say that creates questions about what else the justices could be shielding from the public. 

“If this has been happening before our very eyes for over a decade, what more don't know about the Supreme Court,” Gostin said. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Courts, Government, Law

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