It was 2004 when the Los Angeles Times disclosed that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had accepted expensive gifts and private plane trips paid for by Harlan Crow, a wealthy Texas real estate investor and a prominent Republican donor.
The gifts included a Bible that once belonged to abolitionist Frederick Douglass — a gift Thomas valued at $19,000 — and a bust of Abraham Lincoln valued at $15,000.
“I just knew he was a fan of Frederick Douglass, and I saw that item come available at an auction and I bought it for him,” Crow explained at the time.
He also flew Thomas on his personal plane to Northern California to be his guest at the Bohemian Grove, which held all-male retreats for government and business leaders.
Thomas refused to comment on the article, but it had an impact: Thomas appears to have continued accepting free trips from his wealthy friend. But he stopped disclosing them.
On Thursday, ProPublica reported that Thomas and his wife, Ginni, enjoyed lavish trips across the globe in recent years at Crow’s expense, including “nine days of island-hopping” off Indonesia in 2019 aboard a 162-foot “superyacht staffed by a coterie of attendants and a private chef.”
That’s a stark contrast from the way Thomas often speaks in public about his summer travels, describing driving a blue motor home and staying in campgrounds.
But ProPublica reported that his summer trips regularly include stays in private resorts paid for by Crow, including at Crow’s ranch in East Texas and his resort in the Adirondacks in upstate New York.
“The extent and frequency of Crow’s apparent gifts to Thomas have no known precedent in the modern history of the U.S. Supreme Court,” ProPublica wrote, adding “these trips appeared nowhere on Thomas’ financial disclosures.
It remains unclear whether Thomas has violated any law or regulation by accepting such gifts and not disclosing them.
Since 1978, the Ethics in Government Act has required judges and justices to report travel costs and other expenses that are provided to them by groups, universities and other such entities. However, it includes an exception for the “personal hospitality of any individual,” so long as the travel does not involve official business.
“Justice Thomas and Ginni never asked for any of this hospitality,” Crow said in a statement to ProPublica. He added that we “never asked about a pending or lower court case, and Justice Thomas has never discussed one.”
Ethics advocates have been frustrated that the court and Congress have failed to enforce stricter rules for the nation’s top judges. They say Thomas and his wife illustrate the need for greater scrutiny.
Ginni Thomas is a longtime conservative activist in Washington who sought to overturn President Trump’s election loss in 2020, including communicating with Trump White House aides and state election officials.
“We have been here before,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, an advocate for court reform. “Clarence Thomas has been taking these trips for decades and not disclosing them.”
In his recent annual disclosure statements, Thomas has checked a box indicating he had no gifts to report.
Responding to the ProPublica story, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) tweeted “the highest court in the land shouldn’t have the lowest ethical standard. Justice Thomas’ lavish undisclosed trips with a GOP mega-donor undermine the trust that our country places in the Supreme Court. Time for an enforceable code of conduct for justices.”
Last month, the federal court’s policy-making group announced somewhat tighter standards to require the reporting of travel on private jets and lodging at private resorts that operate commercially.
While those rules may prompt further disclosures next year, they would not regulate or prohibit such travel.
Roth said ProPublica’s report makes 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. That means a judicial ethics office to preapprove sponsored trips, no matter who — even a ‘friend’ — is footing the bill.”