Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas accepted luxury trips around the globe for more than two decades, including travel on a superyacht and private jet, from a prominent Republican donor without disclosing them, according to a new report.
ProPublica reported Thursday on an array of trips funded by Harlan Crow, a Dallas businessman. The publication said Thomas typically spends about a week every summer at Crow’s private resort in the Adirondacks. It said the justice also has vacationed at Crow’s ranch in East Texas and has joined him at the Bohemian Grove, an exclusive all-male retreat in California.
ProPublica cited a nine-day trip that Thomas and his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, took to Indonesia in 2019, shortly after the court released its final opinions of the term. That trip, which included flights on Crow’s jet and island-hopping on a superyacht, would have cost the couple more than $500,000 if they had paid for it themselves, the publication said.
The report prompted furious reactions from Democrats, some of whom called for Thomas, the court’s senior justice, to resign. Republicans either defended Thomas’s right to vacation with friends or were silent.
Ethics experts disagreed on whether the law or judicial regulations at the time required disclosures of the lavish gifts. If not, some critics said, that is even more reason the Supreme Court should adopt an enforceable code of conduct. That is apparently a topic of discussion among the justices, although the process has been stalled for years.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) vowed in a statement that his panel would take action in response to the ProPublica investigation, calling the report “simply inconsistent with the ethical standards the American people expect of any public servant, let alone a Justice on the Supreme Court.”
ProPublica said Thomas did not respond to detailed questions about its reporting, and he did not respond to questions from The Washington Post and other media outlets Thursday. Some members of Congress called on Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to launch an investigation, although his powers to police his life-tenured colleagues are limited. Roberts and a court spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement, Crow acknowledged that he has extended “hospitality” to the Thomases “over the years” but said that the couple “never asked for any of this hospitality” and that he has not tried to influence the justice on matters before the court.
“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,” Crow said. “More generally, I am 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. These are gatherings of friends.”
It is unclear exactly who attended the gatherings and thus had access to the justice. Crow is an influential donor to Republican candidates and causes related to the law and judiciary.
Federal law mandates that top officials from the three branches of government, including the Supreme Court, file annual forms detailing their finances, outside income and spouses’ sources of income, with each branch determining its own reporting standards.
Judges are prohibited from accepting gifts from anyone with business before the court. Until recently, however, the judicial branch had not clearly defined an exemption for gifts considered “personal hospitality.”
Revised rules adopted by a committee of the Judicial Conference, the courts’ policymaking body, seek to provide a fuller accounting. The rules took effect March 14.
Gifts such as an overnight stay at a personal vacation home owned by a friend remain exempt from reporting requirements. But the revised rules require disclosure when judges are treated to stays at commercial properties, such as hotels, ski resorts or other private retreats owned by a company, rather than an individual. The changes also clarify that judges must report travel by private jet.
Thomas’s trips funded by Crow do not appear on his most recent financial disclosures. Since 2004, Thomas has reported only two gifts: one an award from his alma mater Yale Law School and the other a bust of Frederick Douglass given to him by Crow.
Ethics experts and court transparency advocates said Thursday that until the change in the regulations in March, the exemption for “personal hospitality” was ambiguous and Thomas arguably did not have to publicly disclose the free flights on Crow’s private jet or his regular stays at Crow’s luxury retreat in the Adirondacks.
“Justice Thomas could plausibly claim, and I think has claimed (as have others) that so long as an invitation itself came from a ‘person,’ not a corporation or business entity, it was ‘personal hospitality’ and he did not need to report it,” Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics expert at NYU School of Law, wrote in an email.
Even so, Gillers said, “this was not the only reading of the prior rule and some, including me, believe that the exemption from reporting applied only if the person extending the invitation was paying for it personally. That’s now the rule.”
Before the March revisions, private jet transportation could be considered exempt from disclosure if it was provided as part of “personal hospitality.”
Going forward, judges and justices will have to report any free flights on private jets, in addition to overnight stays at a property owned by “an entity, rather than by an individual.” ProPublica reported that the Adirondack property is owned by Crow’s company.
Gabe Roth, head of the transparency group Fix the Court, said that the new rules do not go far enough and that judges and justices should be subject to the same stricter travel and gift rules that apply to members of Congress.
“Remember, if a judge or justice took a flight on a private plane today, the public would not learn about it until their 2023 disclosure comes out, which would be mid-June 2024 at the earliest (assuming the jurist even reported it),” he said in a statement. “Such an unnecessary delay makes real oversight impossible.”
Durbin and other Democrats renewed calls for the Supreme Court to adopt a strict ethics code that would include a process for investigating alleged misconduct, and some Democrats called on Thomas to resign.
“This cries out for the kind of independent investigation that the Supreme Court — and only the Supreme Court, across the entire government — refuses to perform,” tweeted Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has sponsored legislation that would direct the court to adopt an ethics code and pressed the courts to close the loophole for personal hospitality gifts.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government, promised to use the appropriations process to ensure the Supreme Court adopts a code of conduct similar to other members of the federal judiciary.
“The Supreme Court should have a code of ethics to govern the conduct of its members, and its refusal to adopt such standards has contributed to eroding public confidence in the highest court in the land,” Van Hollen said in a statement.
“Is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas corrupt? I don’t know,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a member of the House leadership team, said in a tweet. “But his secretive actions absolutely have the appearance of corruption. … For the good of the country, he should resign.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment on Thursday.
While the wide scope of Crow’s funding of Thomas’s travel has not been previously reported, the largesse directed at the justice by the billionaire donor has provoked controversy previously.
In 2011, the New York Times reported that Crow had done many favors for Thomas and his wife, notably financing the multimillion-dollar purchase and restoration of a cannery in Pin Point, Ga., that was a pet project of the justice.
Crow helped finance a Savannah, Ga., library project dedicated to Thomas, presented him with a Bible that belonged to Douglass and reportedly provided $500,000 for Ginni Thomas to start a tea-party-related group.
Thomas, who joined the court in 1991, has drawn scrutiny on other ethical issues in recent years, several related to the political activism of his wife. She has been allied with numerous people and groups that have interests before the court, and she has dedicated herself to right-wing causes involving some of the most polarizing issues in the country.
Ginni Thomas has privately pressed then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to pursue efforts to overturn Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential election, and she sent emails urging swing-state lawmakers to set aside Joe Biden’s popular-vote victory in awarding electoral votes. When those efforts were revealed by The Post last year, they intensified questions about whether her husband should recuse himself from cases related to the election and attempts to subvert it.
The Post also reported last month that a little-known conservative activist group led by Ginni Thomas collected nearly $600,000 in anonymous donations to wage a cultural battle against the left over three years. The previously unreported donations to the fledgling group Crowdsourcing for Culture and Liberty were channeled through a right-wing think tank in Washington that agreed to serve as a funding conduit from 2019 until the start of last year, according to documents and interviews.
Jonathan O’Connell, Ann E. Marimow, Shawn Boburg and Emma Brown contributed to this report.