Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on Friday said he “was advised” that he did not have to disclose a series of trips reportedly paid for by a Republican mega-donor.
The trips, which were revealed on Thursday by a ProPublica investigation, led to outrage from Democrats and judicial watchdog groups.
“Early in my tenure at the Court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable. I have endeavored to follow that counsel throughout my tenure, and have always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines,” Thomas said in a statement, his first public comments since the report.
ProPublica reported on Thursday that Harlan Crow, a Dallas-based real estate developer who has donated millions to conservative causes, paid for Thomas to join multiple vacations, including trips on Harlan’s private jet and 162-foot yacht.
Supreme Court justices are required to file annual financial disclosures, and the federal judiciary’s policy-making body last month quietly adopted stricter gift reporting requirements that clarified the “personal hospitality” exception does not apply to gifts at commercial properties and only spans certain gifts from someone with a personal relationship with the justice in a nonbusiness context.
“These guidelines are now being changed, as the committee of the Judicial Conference responsible for financial disclosure for the entire federal judiciary just this past month announced new guidance. And, it is, of course, my intent to follow this guidance in the future,” Thomas said.
The ProPublica investigation detailed a series of purported trips Thomas took at Crow’s expense that stretch back years, from Indonesia to the Bohemian Grove in California to the Adirondacks.
“Harlan and Kathy Crow are among our dearest friends, and we have been friends for over twenty-five years. As friends do, we have joined them on a number of family trips during the more than quarter century we have known them,” Thomas said Friday.
It’s not the first time Thomas has come under scrutiny for judicial ethics. He faced calls to recuse himself from cases involving the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack after it surfaced that his wife, conservative activist Ginni Thomas, was involved in efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.
ProPublica’s investigation quickly led to condemnation of Thomas from those who have advocated for stronger ethics rules at the Supreme Court and who have previously raised concerns about reported efforts to wine-and-dine the justices to gain influence and the extraordinary leak of the court’s draft majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Thursday called for Thomas’s impeachment, while Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said his committee “will act.”
A group of Democrats in February reintroduced a bill to implement a binding code of ethics for the justices, like the one in place for lower federal judges, although some legal observers suggest such a proposal could create separation-of-powers issues.
In his 2011 year-end report on the federal judiciary, Chief Justice John Roberts said the justices consult the code of conduct in place for other federal judges but also look to a “wide variety of other authorities” to resolve ethical issues.
“They may turn to judicial opinions, treatises, scholarly articles, and disciplinary decisions,” Roberts wrote. “They may also seek advice from the Court’s Legal Office, from the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Codes of Conduct, and from their colleagues.”
“For that reason, the Court has had no reason to adopt the Code of Conduct as its definitive source of ethical guidance. But as a practical matter, the Code remains the starting point and a key source of guidance for the Justices as well as their lower court colleagues,” he added.
Updated at 12:18 p.m.