The pile-up of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s ethics issues — and those of his wife, Ginni Thomas — only appears to be getting worse with each passing week.
Most recently, a report from ProPublica revealed that real estate magnate and conservative donor Harlan Crow had paid thousands in school tuition for Thomas’s grand-nephew, a transaction that was not disclosed. Additionally, a Washington Post report found that Leonard Leo, a well-known Republican activist dedicated to stacking the court with conservative justices, secretly paid $25,000 to Thomas’s wife, Ginni Thomas, allegedly for survey services. It’s not clear whether the second of these would constitute an ethics violation, though it does suggest a potential conflict of interest as the nonprofit Leo is affiliated with filed a brief with the Supreme Court shortly after the payment was made.
These latest reports add to several others documenting Thomas’s use of Crow’s yacht and private jet, and lucrative real estate sales the justice made with the billionaire, all without disclosure. When it comes to existing ethics rules, Thomas’s actions in many of these cases are a violation because he did not disclose these gifts as the Ethics in Government Act requires of many government officials. Thomas has previously said he did not believe he had to disclose the travel gifts, and he intends to amend a past disclosure to reflect the real estate sale.
Beyond the actual rule violations, Thomas’s actions also signal concerning conflicts of interest for one of the most powerful judges in the country. That wealthy conservative figures have bankrolled the lives of Thomas and his wife severely undercuts the Supreme Court’s appearance of independence and impartiality.
“Under any reasonable standard, the totality of the trips, gifts, the tuition payments, we’re talking potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s so egregious it could bring down the credibility of the court as an institution,” Virginia Canter, the chief ethics counsel at CREW, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, in Washington, told Vox.
Thomas’s violations, and a troubling lack of accountability for them, make the case for more legislative ethics reforms that would prevent Justices from taking similar actions in the future. Thus far, the Court has not been able to establish its own ethics standards, and it’s chafed against publicly confronting the concerns raised about Thomas.
A timeline of Clarence and Ginni Thomas’s questionable ethics maneuvers
Even before ProPublica published a bombshell report on Thomas accepting luxury trips from Crow, the justice and his wife faced questions about their decisions and conduct. Below is a rundown of what’s come out:
- March 2022: Texts obtained by the Washington Post and CBS News revealed that Ginni Thomas repeatedly urged then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to pursue efforts to overturn the 2020 results in the weeks after the election. The Supreme Court wound up deciding whether Trump White House documents could be released to the House January 6th Committee, an example of Justice Thomas’s work directly relating to his wife’s political activism. Thomas’s decision not to recuse himself on the issue raised concerns about his ability to be impartial on subjects on which his wife had taken a strong position.
- April 6: ProPublica revealed that Thomas has taken at least six trips on Crow’s private jet, stayed at his private resort in the Adirondacks, and used his superyacht on other luxury vacations over the course of two decades. Thomas has not disclosed these trips, a violation of the Ethics in Government Act. Crow has said he has not sought to influence Thomas on any legal or political issue or discuss pending cases before the court. Thomas has said he did not disclose these trips because he was told he did not have to do so.
- April 13: A second ProPublica report found that Crow purchased Thomas’s mother’s home as well as two vacant lots, and that this transaction was not disclosed. That lack of disclosure is also a violation of the Ethics in Government Act. Crow has said he purchased the home to one day convert it into a museum honoring Thomas; currently, Thomas’s mother lives there rent-free. Thomas has since said he will amend his ethics disclosure to reflect this purchase.
- April 16: A Washington Post investigation determined that Thomas has claimed income from a real estate company that no longer exists. It’s possible these statements were due to a clerical error, though they add to concerns about Thomas’s disclosures.
- May 4: A third ProPublica report found that Crow has paid thousands in tuition for Thomas’s grand-nephew to attend two private boarding schools. Canter notes that the payment effectively constitutes a gift to Thomas and should have been disclosed, making it another likely violation of the Ethics in Government Act.
- May 4: A second Washington Post report discovered that conservative activist Leonard Leo paid $25,000 to Ginni Thomas in January 2012 for purported polling services, and requested that her name not be mentioned in the transaction. The company the payment was routed through, a polling company owned by former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, paid Thomas’s firm at least $80,000 that year. That same year, an organization Leo was affiliated with, the Judicial Education Project, filed an amicus brief in a voting rights case that was before the Supreme Court. Although Thomas’s actions in this case aren’t necessarily an ethics violation, they raise questions about a conflict of interest.
The need for accountability
The Thomas ethics violations have put a new spotlight on the Supreme Court’s lack of accountability. Unlike lower courts, the Supreme Court has no binding code of ethics, no internal body to investigate wrongdoing, and Justices largely regulate themselves.
“The Supreme Court Justices are some of the most powerful officials in the country,” said David Janovsky, a policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight. “And when other lower-level folks are held to account for similar disclosure violations and more powerful people aren’t held to account, that sends a bad message for how the ethics regime writ large is working.”
In Thomas’s case, there are likely to be limited consequences, with the most aggressive penalty coming in the form of a fine if the Department of Justice decides to pursue a civil action and if he is found liable. Canter notes that Chief Justice John Roberts could also pressure Thomas to resign if scrutiny of his conduct grew further.
Beyond the DOJ fines, Congress is also able to pursue impeachment of justices, though it’s highly unlikely to do so while Republicans control the House.
In the meantime, Senate Democrats have held a hearing to spotlight the issues at the Supreme Court and urged Justice Chief Roberts to testify. Roberts has declined to do so, however, and any attempt to subpoena either him or Thomas in the future is likely to be met with a court challenge due to questions about “separation of powers” between the two branches, Roll Call reports.
Democrats, including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Hank Johnson, have also proposed ethics reforms for the Supreme Court in the form of the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act. That bill would strengthen disclosure standards and recusal rules for the Court, set up a clear process for investigating misconduct, and require the establishment of a binding code of ethics. Due to Republican opposition in both the Senate and House, such measures aren’t expected to pass.
Accountability for the Supreme Court matters in order to ensure that justices aren’t abusing their power, and that people can continue to trust the institution’s decisions. Without it, questions about whether justices are taking advantage of their role, and making decisions based on external influences, will continue to emerge.