WASHINGTON — Amid a renewed focus on Supreme Court ethics, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas disclosed trips that were paid for by his billionaire friend Harlan Crow, in his annual financial disclosure report Thursday.
Among his activities in 2022 that he reported on, Thomas noted that Crow paid for his travel to a conservative conference in Dallas in May last year. Thomas spoke at the event, which was held at a facility owned by Crow’s real estate company. Crow also provided a return flight from Dallas in February following an ice storm, Thomas reported.
Thomas also said Crow paid for a trip to the Adirondacks in New York state in July 2022.
In notes attached to the report, Thomas said he flew on a private jet in the May 2022 trip because of increased security concerns following the leak that month of a draft opinion showing the court was poised to overturn the abortion rights landmark Roe v. Wade.
Elliot Berke, a lawyer who helped prepare the report, issued a statement saying that after reviewing Thomas' records, "I am confident there has been no willful ethics transgression and any prior reporting errors were strictly inadvertent."
Supreme Court members have been under fire for alleged ethics lapses following a ProPublica report that detailed Thomas’ acceptance over the years of lavish trips from Crow, a Republican donor, that he had not disclosed in his previous financial disclosure reports.
Disclosure rules were changed in March, shortly before the first ProPublica article about Thomas was published, to make it clear that trips on private jets and stays at privately owned resorts would have to be disclosed. Judicial ethics issues are overseen by the U.S. Judicial Conference, the policymaking arm of the judiciary.
Both Thomas and fellow conservative Justice Samuel Alito had asked for a delay in filing their annual reports, which is allowed under federal law. The reports are usually submitted in May and made public the following month.
Alito's report disclosed a trip paid for by Duke Law School and a trip to Rome paid for by Notre Dame Law School.
Justices can ask for extensions of up to 90 days to file the reports.
Another report by ProPublica revealed that Alito had taken a luxury vacation in Alaska with a Republican donor who had business interests before the court.
ProPublica's reporting focused in part on the failure of Thomas and Alito to disclose travel and hospitality they received.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have since called for new Supreme Court ethics rules.
Thomas said the gifts from Crow constituted “personal hospitality,” meaning he did not have to disclose them under the previous rules.
His report Thursday expanded on that defense in a section explaining his approach. Before the rule change, "filer adhered to the then existing judicial regulations as his colleagues had done, both in practice and in consultation with the Judicial Conference," the report said.
Thomas also addressed Crow's purchase of real estate owned by the justice's family in Savannah, Georgia, also first revealed by ProPublica. The news report said that Thomas' mother lived in one of the houses in question.
That report said that Crow bought three properties for $133,000 along with other lots on the street. Thomas himself took a loss on the transaction because he had previously invested up to $75,000 into his mother's home. Thomas had not realized he was required to disclose the sale as it constituted a loss, the report said.
"There was no profit or net income for Justice Thomas on the transaction," Berke said in his statement.
Thomas' report also noted that he had "inadvertently omitted" in previous reports bank accounts and other reportable financial matters held by his wife, conservative political activist Virginia "Ginni" Thomas.
Gabe Roth, executive director of the judicial ethics watchdog Fix the Court, welcomed the disclosures but said Thomas could do more to address hospitality he received in previous years.
"Justice Thomas’ lengthy explanation as to why he omitted various gifts and free trips on previous disclosures does not countermand his decades of willful obfuscation when it comes to his reporting requirements," he said.
The Judicial Conference should ask the Justice Department to investigate, as allowed under the relevant judicial disclosure law, Roth added.
Alito, likewise, rejected the notion that he had done anything wrong, saying the 2008 Alaska trip was not reportable under the disclosure rules at the time.
He also questioned whether Congress has the power to impose stricter ethics rules on the court, an unusual intervention by a sitting justice into a live legal question.
"No provision in the Constitution gives them the authority to regulate the Supreme Court — period," Alito said in a Wall Street Journal interview last month.
Most legal experts say Congress does have a role to play in overseeing the court, although questions remain as to what extent it can do so without violating the Constitution's separation of powers provision. Liberal Justice Elena Kagan said in a public appearance this month that Congress can regulate the court, although she noted that there are limits on what it can do.
The justices could decide to impose new binding ethics rules without congressional intervention, but Kagan indicated that no agreement had been reached. Lower court judges are already subject to a binding ethics code.
The justices said in a statement in April that they “reaffirm and restate” their commitment to ethics principles. They noted that they file the same financial disclosure reports other federal judges do and follow the same general principles and standards for recusal, as well.
However, ethics experts said, the statement fell short on several fronts, and congressional Democrats immediately criticized it.
Chief Justice John Roberts appeared to concede in May that more needed to be done.
“I want to assure people I am committed to making certain that we as a court adhere to the highest standards of conduct. We are continuing to look at things we can do to give practical effect to that commitment,” he said.