Supreme Court justices, including Clarence Thomas, are their own ethics police.


WASHINGTON — For many years, a loophole that allowed Supreme Court justices to avoid disclosing certain gifts, including trips, financed by their friends was apparently large enough to blow up a private plane.

The federal judiciary alone last month announced in a letter to lawmakers that it had tightened its rules about what judges and magistrates must include in annual financial disclosure statements.

That adjustment was made just a few weeks before ProPublica The article published Thursday detailed extravagant trips allegedly taken by conservative judge Clarence Thomas and financed by conservative billionaire and Republican donor Harlan Crow.

Thomas did not disclose these trips, which allegedly included trips on Crow’s private jet and visits to a private resort in upstate New York, in his annual financial disclosure statements. Under the rules that existed until recently, he may not have been required.

«In my view, prior to the recent amendments, the situation was vague enough to give Thomas a basis for claiming that reporting was not required,» said Stephen Gillers, a judicial ethics expert at the University of California Law School. New York University. «I think such an interpretation would be overstated… but the interpretation is plausible.»

The «personal hospitality» exemption means that judges and magistrates do not have to disclose certain gifts, including room and board, when the person involved is a friend. The new interpretation made it clear that private jet travel and stays at resort-like facilities owned by private entities must be disclosed. That would appear to cover trips ProPublica said Thomas has taken to the private resort Crow owns in upstate New York, as well as trips on the donor’s jet. NBC News could not immediately confirm the details of the ProPublica reporting.

ProPublica reported that it «uncovered the details of Thomas’ voyage from flight logs, internal documents distributed to Crow employees, and interviews with dozens of people, from his superyacht staff to members of the secretive Bohemian Club and a scuba instructor.» of Indonesian».

The article does not allege that Crow asked for anything in exchange for Thomas, which would constitute quid pro quo corruption. The news outlet also said that Thomas did not respond to a detailed list of questions. Crow said in a statement issued to ProPublica and later obtained by NBC News that he has never tried to influence justice. The Supreme Court did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Charles Geyh, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said whether or not Thomas should have disclosed the gifts, the biggest concern is that a judge would accept hospitality of such value.

«Thomas and Crow were not childhood friends. They met when Thomas was on the Supreme Court, when the judge had to understand that Crow’s interest in bringing Thomas into the fold of friends enjoying such lavish treatment was attributable to his status as a judge.» he said.

Thomas has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent months, largely fueled by the actions of his wife, Virginia «Ginni» Thomas, including her support for former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. Thomas himself faced criticism for not standing aside from cases involving Trump and the election.

The Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority that has angered liberals by shifting American law drastically to the right, most notably with its ruling last year that overturned the Roe v. Wade of 1973 that said women had a constitutional right to abortion.

More broadly, the most recent spotlight on Thomas draws attention to how Supreme Court justices generally hold themselves in check when it comes to ethics issues. Judges face increasing pressure to adopt a formal code of ethics similar to that required of lower court judges.

So far, judges have stood their ground, even though district and appellate court judges are bound by a judicial code of ethics. Among other things, it requires judges to «avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities.» If judges break the code, they can be investigated and reprimanded through an independent complaint process.

The judges say they follow the spirit of the code, introduced in 1973, but have never formally adopted one of their own. Nor is there a procedure that allows complaints to be investigated except for the drastic step of impeachment. Members of Congress have introduced legislation requiring judges to adopt a code, though there are questions about whether it could be enforced.

Thomas’ actions in allegedly accepting such largesse from Crow could be seen as a violation of the code of conduct that applies to lower court judges, Geyh said.

For those calling for stricter ethics rules, the ProPublica report is a sign that the current system does not go far enough.

“The highest court in the land should not have the lowest ethical standards,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said in a statement Thursday. Thomas’ alleged behavior was «simply inconsistent with the ethical standards the American people expect of any public servant, let alone a Supreme Court justice,» he added.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, DN.Y., tweeted that Thomas should be charged and removed from office.

Gabe Roth, executive director of ethics watchdog Fix the Court, said judges and magistrates need disclosure rules similar to those required of members of Congress. A judicial ethics office must be established to approve travel in advance, whoever pays the bill, he added, and reports must be requested within 30 days.

“It is clear that the personal hospitality rules that the judiciary adopted last month do not go far enough,” he said.

You may also like...