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Clarence Thomas responds to criticism of undisclosed travel

Supreme Court justice issues a rare statement, as Democratic senators renew calls for stricter ethics code for the high court

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sits during a group photo in 2021.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sits during a group photo in 2021. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas issued a rare statement Friday in response to an investigative news report about unreported trips he received from a Republican donor that renewed Democratic criticisms of the high court’s ethical standards.

The statement followed a ProPublica report Thursday that for years Thomas did not disclose that he went on international vacations and received free flights on a private jet from billionaire and Republican donor Harlan Crow.

Thomas’ statement said he considers Crow and his wife “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.”

“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,” Thomas said. “I have endeavored to follow that counsel throughout my tenure, and have always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines.”

Thomas also noted a change to reporting standards adopted by the Judicial Conference of the United States last month that changed when personal gifts may have to be disclosed.

“And, it is, of course, my intent to follow this guidance in the future,” Thomas’ statement said.

Under the new rule, judges and justices can only avoid reporting “personal hospitality” like food and lodging when staying at a personal home, according to a March 23 letter to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., from Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Democrats react

Thursday’s report on Thomas’ trips reignited Democratic criticism of how the justices handle gift disclosures and their ethical standards more broadly.

Whitehouse, who leads the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee that oversees the federal courts and has pressed for more transparency, in a statement Thursday called for a Supreme Court investigation into Thomas’ trips as well as action on legislation to mandate the court pass a code of ethics.

“This Supreme Court has lost its ethical compass,” Whitehouse said. “It’s no wonder that the American people are losing faith in the idea that they can get a fair shake before the nation’s highest court when they see a Supreme Court justice openly flouting basic disclosure rules in order to pal around with billionaires in secret.”

The chairman of the full Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said his panel would take some action in response to the report.

“This behavior is simply inconsistent with the ethical standards the American people expect of any public servant, let alone a Justice on the Supreme Court,” Durbin said.

Whitehouse has already reintroduced legislation that would mandate the court adopt new ethical and recusal standards that did not advance in the chamber last Congress.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the federal courts, said he may push for language in spending legislation to mandate the court adopt an ethics code.

“It is unacceptable that the Supreme Court has exempted itself from the accountability that applies to all other members of our federal courts, and I believe Congress should act to remedy this problem,” Van Hollen said in a statement Thursday.

Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, an advocacy group for judicial ethics, criticized Thomas’ response in a statement Friday, pointing out that Thomas did not say who advised him against disclosing the trips and the friendship with Crow underlined the need for broader ethical standards at the court.

Congress should have both Thomas and Crow testify about the trips and potentially look at judicial disclosures more broadly, noting “nothing in Justice Thomas’ statement changes the fact that lawmakers have a responsibility to dig into his travel to see if any laws were broken or if any other lavish trips were omitted from his disclosures,” Roth said.

Democrats have not found allies to advance legislation to set a new ethical code for the justices. Last year, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to advance a bill that would create new recusal standards for when a justice should not sit on a case because of a conflict, as well as require the creation of a code of conduct for Supreme Court justices and a new code of conduct for all federal judges, among other provisions.

That measure did not advance in the full House and faced uniform Republican opposition. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the House Judiciary subcommittee that oversees the federal courts, issued a statement that defended Thomas.

“The American left has waged a 30 years’ war on Clarence Thomas and his family. And all the while his character, integrity, and sense of humor have remained steadfast, resolute, and intact,” Issa said.

Republicans currently control the House and Democrats have a one-seat majority in the Senate, meaning any change to the high court would require bipartisan support.

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