WASHINGTON − Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on Thursday disclosed additional travel paid for by GOP mega-donor Harlan Crow last year, including a private jet flight to Texas that the justice said he accepted because of increased security after the leak of the high court’s controversial abortion opinion.
In an extensive note attached to an annual disclosure report made public Thursday, Thomas noted a flight paid for by Crow last year for an American Enterprise Institute event in Dallas in which the justice was the keynote speaker. Thomas said that he accepted the private flight because of “the increased security risk” after the leak in May of a draft of the high court’s opinion overturning Roe v. Wade.
The annual disclosure report, which typically provide only limited details about justices’ outside income and investments, also noted a private plane trip paid for by Crow to Texas in February 2022 − which Thomas said he accepted because of an “unexpected ice storm.” The disclosure notes another trip paid for by Crow to Crow’s lodge in the Adirondacks and, for the first time, acknowledged Crow’s purchase of property from Thomas in 2014.
The details on the disclosure arrived as the Supreme Court and Thomas in particular have been under intense scrutiny for months over outside gifts and travel − a debate that has prompted Democrats in Congress and outside groups to pressure the court to embrace a code of ethics and greater transparency.
In an unusual move perhaps underscoring the attention a series of recent stories in ProPublica detailing luxury travel have received, an attorney for Thomas fired back at critics who have questioned his ethics in a lengthy statement, describing the criticism of the senior most associate justice as “political blood sport.”
A report filed by Justice Samuel Alito also was made public Thursday, though his was more perfunctory. Alito disclosed that Notre Dame Law School paid for a trip to Italy last summer in which he used an address in Rome to push back on critics of the Supreme Court’s decision to end a constitutional right to abortion.
The decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the most controversial ruling the court has handed down in years, sparked protests at the justices’ houses. In one instance last year, a California man armed with a gun was arrested near Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s suburban Washington, D.C. home.
Thomas lawyer decries ‘weaponized ethics allegations’
The reports landed amid a series of recent scandals involving Thomas and private jet travel and luxury vacations paid for Crow and others. Alito acknowledged in June that he flew to Alaska for a fishing trip on a private jet in 2008 that belonged to a hedge fund manager who repeatedly brought cases before the high court. Alito has maintained he didn’t need to disclose the trips and there was no mention of it on his latest disclosure report.
Financial disclosures for the rest of the justices were released in June. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, meanwhile, was the focus of a story in July about how her aides pressed colleges and a library to order copies of books she had written in connection with public speaking events.
Elliot Berke, an attorney representing Thomas, released a statement minutes after the disclosure report became public Thursday defending the justice’s past reporting and dismissing criticism of the gifts as partisan.
“Over the course of his 44 years in public service in all three branches of government, Justice Thomas has always strived for full transparency and adherence to the law, including with respect to what personal travel needed to be reported,” he said. “After reviewing Justice Thomas’ records, I am confident there has been no willful ethics transgression, and any prior reporting errors were strictly inadvertent.”
Berke also blasted Thomas’ critics as “left wing organizations with largely undisclosed supporters that stand diametrically opposed to his judicial philosophy.” Berke said that while public figures “may be the targets of weaponized ethics allegations,” that “all Americans” ultimately suffer from the criticism.
Groups advocating for more transparency on the court said the explanations are not sufficient.
“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,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of the Fix the Court.
Thomas acknowledges he ‘inadvertently omitted’ information
But Thomas’ latest disclosure includes information he “inadvertently omitted” from past reports and it includes new information on real estate Crow purchased from Thomas. The justice is “seeking guidance” on whether he will amend reports from prior years, according to the latest document.
The justice acknowledged that Crow purchased a home in Georgia in 2014 in which the justice’s mother lives and two other properties. Thomas said that Crow paid $133,000 and that he “inadvertently failed to realize” he should have reported the sale because, he said, he took a loss on the transaction.
He also disclosed a life insurance policy held by his wife, Ginni Thomas, and bank accounts he said were omitted from prior annual reports.
In a statement attached to his report, Thomas laid out his case for why some of the earlier travel paid for by Crow was not disclosed. The flights and lodging, he said, were exempted from disclosure requirements until federal judiciary officials released new guidance earlier this year. Going forward, the statement read, “filer will report any such trips.”
Fight over Supreme Court ethics changes appears stalled
The nation’s highest court has appeared to stall on ethics changes amid a steady stream of news coverage revealing trips and other transactions. Based on public remarks and interviews by the justices over the summer, there seems to be no agreement on how to proceed. Congress, meanwhile, is unlikely for now to approve legislation Senate Democrats are pushing that would require a code of ethics at the court. Republican lawmakers have balked at the idea.
A Senate panel last month passed a bill that would require the Supreme Court to adopt a code of ethics after a fiery partisan debate over recent scandals involving justices that underscored the measure’s low chances of success. Citing a “steady stream of reports of justices’ ethical failures,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, described the legislation as “a crucial first step in restoring confidence in the court.”
Chief Justice John Roberts has described the ethics issues swirling around the nation’s highest court as an “issue of concern.” Justice Elena Kegan recently noted that the high court could adopt its own code of ethics and suggested that the justices are discussing it but that there is a “variety of views” about the issue. But Republicans have framed the debate around ethics as a way to undermine a court where conservatives hold a 6-3 majority.