Home Scandals The Clarence Thomas scandal doesn’t involve breaking the law. It shows how...

The Clarence Thomas scandal doesn’t involve breaking the law. It shows how corrupt the Supreme Court’s ethics standards are

The Clarence Thomas scandal doesn’t involve breaking the law. It shows how corrupt the Supreme Court’s ethics standards are


The revelations that Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, Justice Clarence Thomas, took lavish trips around the globe from a billionaire GOP donor in the past two decades have prompted calls for new ethics rules to govern the Supreme Court’s nine jurists. These men enjoy immense power and long-term tenure.

According to ProPublica, Thomas and his wife traveled through Indonesia aboard Harlan Crow’s 162-foot yacht. They also vacationed at Harlan Crow’s New York resort almost every summer. He also flew on his private plane around world on trips that were worth hundreds of thousands of Dollars.

Experts in judicial ethics disagree about whether Thomas violated the law by failing to disclose the hospitality on his annual financial disclosures. Although a federal statute governs gifts to judges it is unclear how its wording can be interpreted and whether it can constitutionally apply to them. The Supreme Court is not formally bound by any code or conduct, unlike lower court judges.

Steven Lubet, a Northwestern University judicial-ethics expert and a member of Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, stated that the Supreme Court requires a code of conduct. They’re not operating in a standard-free zone.

Over the past year, the court has been faced with a number of ethics scandals. The most significant was the May leakage of the court’s draft opinion on overturning the constitutional right for abortion. The court has yet to name the culprit. According to a New York Times report, anti-abortion activists used a charity linked to the court to build relationships with the justices in an effort to influence them.

Thomas, the 74 year-old anchor of court’s conservative side, has been the subject of much of the criticism. His wife, Virginia “Ginni”, a right-wing activist, lobbied Mark Meadows, former President Donald Trump’s chief staffer, to reverse the results of the 2020 elections. Thomas declined to withdraw from a case involving White House records regarding Jan. 6, despite that push having helped lay the foundation for the Jan. 6 Capitol Riot.

Thomas did disclose a Crow gift in 2015 — a bronze bust depicting Frederick Douglass, valued at $6484 — but his reports do not mention Crow’s vacations or other travels. The filings also include routine items such as income from teaching at various law schools and reimbursement for travel expenses and lodging expenses when Thomas gave speeches out of town.

RV Parks

Thomas’s reported vacations in the Bahamas with Crow are a contrast to his humble public image. Thomas was born into poverty in rural Georgia and has portrayed himself as someone who dislikes liberal elites. He prefers the company of people he meets while touring the country in his recreational vehicle during the court’s summer recesses.

“I prefer RV parks. I prefer the Walmart parking lot to the beaches and other similar places. It’s very normal to me,” Thomas said in a documentary funded in part by Crow. “I’m from regular stock, and that’s what I prefer — it’s the only way I can be around.”

Thomas did not immediately comment on the story. Crow stated in an email that Thomases were “dear friends” and never asked for the hospitality.

Crow stated, “The hospitality that we extended to the Thomases over time is no different to the hospitality that we extended to our many dear friends.”

Murky Rules

Critics claim Thomas’s failure disclose the trips violated a federal law that requires judges (including Supreme Court justices) to detail gifts exceeding a few hundred dollars. This law exempts “personal accommodation,” which includes meals and accommodations at friends’ homes.

Although the law regarding transportation is not clear, including private jet travel and private jet travel, a panel that establishes policy for the federal judiciary clarified recently that judges should disclose such gifts. These amendments also stated that disclosure is required for friends who pay for a stay at commercial property such as a resort.

Kedric Payne, vice-president and general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, stated that while there are no wrong ways to have these kinds of interactions with friends, it is wrong to not disclose it in compliance with law.

Stephen Gillers, a New York University School of Law judicial-ethics expert, stated that before the clarification, justices could claim an exemption from reporting so long as the invitation was from a person and not a company. Gillers stated that transportation was exempted from reporting without qualification.

Lubet called law “ambiguous”, but he criticised Thomas for not being more transparent.

Lubet stated that there was nothing that would have stopped Justice Thomas from including it in his annual disclosure. But he chose to not.”

Congressional Push

These revelations have reenergized a decade-long effort by Congress to impose an ethics code that applies to all federal judges.

“As long nine justices are exempted from any process for enforcing fundamental ethics, public faith will continue to decline in the Supreme Court, and dark money will continue their relentless grip on our democracy,” stated Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island.

Whitehouse is a cosponsor of legislation that requires justices to adopt and adhere to a code of ethics, which would be reviewed by judges of appellate courts. The bill, which would require justices to disclose more information on gifts and travel, was passed by a House committee last January, but has since been stalled.

Another bill, cosponsored by Democratic Georgia Representative Hank Johnson, and Democratic Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy would create a Supreme Court Ethics Officer and establish a process to file complaints against the justices regarding ethical violations.

The movement extends beyond Congress. The American Bar Association passed a resolution this year urging the Supreme Court adopt a code similar in style to those that federal judges must follow.

Even if the legislative effort succeeds, it could be at the mercy the court. This suggests that Congress might not have the constitutional power of imposing ethics rules on the justices.

Chief Justice John Roberts stated in his 2011 year-end reports that “the court has never addressed whether Congress might impose those requirements upon the Supreme Court.” “The justices nonetheless comply with these provisions.”

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