Daily News Portal

Justice Thomas says he used private jet for security reasons after Dobbs leak

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas reported three 2022 trips on the private jet of a Texas billionaire in a financial disclosure form released Thursday, and for the first time detailed the businessman’s purchase of three properties from the justice’s family years earlier.

In his required annual financial report, Thomas said he opted to fly on the private plane of his friend and benefactor, Harlan Crow, for one of the trips on the advice of his security detail. The justices faced heightened security risks, Thomas noted, after the May, 2022 leak of the court’s majority opinion to eliminate the nationwide right to abortion and overturn Roe v. Wade.

Thomas also acknowledged prior mistakes and omissions in past reports, involving bank accounts, a life insurance policy and the name of his wife’s real estate company.

The 2022 filings from Thomas and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. were made public Thursday, months later than those of their colleagues at the high court, because the two justices had requested 90-day extensions. The annual reports have drawn increased attention in recent years, amid pressure from Congressional Democrats and outside legal experts for the justices to strengthen disclosure requirements for travel and gifts, and adopt specific ethics guidelines.

The pressure comes in part from news reports by ProPublica and other outlets revealing that Thomas did not disclose years of luxury vacations and private jet travel funded by Crow, and that Alito did not report a free trip to a fishing resort in Alaska in 2008. Alito flew to the resort on the private jet of a billionaire hedge fund manager who later had cases before the court; the trip was organized by conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo, who had helped Alito win confirmation, according to ProPublica.

Thomas and Alito have said they did not believe they needed to disclose the free travel. But ethics rules for federal judges — and the nine justices — were revised in March to require a fuller accounting of the free trips and other gifts members of the judiciary accept. The rules clarified which gifts can be counted as “personal hospitality” from a close friend and exempt from disclosure. They made clear that starting with the 2022 forms, judges and justices must report travel by private jet.

In his report Thursday, Thomas said he prepared his 2022 form with guidance from the Supreme Court’s legal office, the counselor to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., staff of the Judicial Conference’s financial disclosure committee and an attorney. Thomas said he “continues to work with Supreme Court officials and the Committee staff for guidance on whether he should further amend his reports from any prior years.”

Thomas’s lawyer, Elliot S. Berke, said in a statement that the justice also worked with an accountant to comply with the updated disclosure rules and review past reports for errors. Berke pushed back on criticism of the justice’s alleged ethical violations, saying it was driven by liberal groups and lawmakers opposed to Thomas’s legal philosophy.

“After reviewing Justice Thomas’s records, I am confident there has been no willful ethics transgression, and any prior reporting errors were strictly inadvertent,” Berke said.

Federal ethics law requires top officials from all branches of government, including the justices, to file annual disclosures listing investments, gifts, outside income and the source of spousal income so that the public can assess potential conflicts of interest. Officials from the legislative and executive branch also have more stringent requirements.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced legislation in July that would require the justices to follow disclosure rules as strict as those that apply to members of Congress — more detailed and timely information about privately sponsored travel, for example — tighten recusal requirements for the justices and create an ethics code for the high court. The bill is opposed by Republicans and is unlikely to succeed.

Democratic lawmakers have separately asked a committee of the federal judiciary’s policymaking body to review Thomas’s decision not to disclose his dealings with Crow.

We asked lawmakers about the Justice Clarence Thomas revelations. (Video: Camila DeChalus, Jillian Banner/The Washington Post)

Roberts has opposed congressional efforts to impose more stringent rules. He said this spring that the court was continuing to “look at things” to show the American public that the court adheres to the “highest standards of conduct.” The justices, however, have struggled to reach consensus on a binding ethics policy.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts released reports for the other Supreme Court justices in June, detailing their outside teaching income, book payments and travel to legal conferences. In his 2022 report, Alito disclosed earning $29,250 from teaching at Regent University and Duke University law schools. Alito also reported that Notre Dame University’s law school provided him with transportation, lodging and meals for a five-day trip to Rome in July for the school’s religious liberty summit.

During that trip, Alito made his first public comments following the decision he authored overturning Roe v. Wade. The justice responded sarcastically to criticism of his opinion from foreign officials, including Britain’s Prince Harry.

“But what really wounded me — what really wounded me — was when the Duke of Sussex addressed the United Nations and seemed to compare the decision whose name may not be spoken with the Russian attack on Ukraine,” Alito said.

Thomas used his 2022 report to correct past errors and disclose private jet travel in response to the updated rules. The justice lists a two-day trip last February to Texas to speak at an American Enterprise Institute conference, and said he only “flew private” on the return trip because of an unexpected ice storm. Thomas also took Crow’s plane to return to Dallas in May for another AEI conference; for that trip, the justice said, he was following advice from his security detail.

In July, Thomas reported taking a six-day trip to the Adirondacks. Crow paid for the justice’s flight by private plane, as well as meals and lodging at his luxury resort, the report said.

Thomas’s filing also provided new details about the 2014 sale to Crow of three properties in Savannah, Ga. that belong to the justice’s family, including the home where Thomas’s mother was living and two nearby vacant lots. Experts previously said the $133,363 real estate transaction, first reported by ProPublica, should have been disclosed when it happened.

Crow did not respond to ProPublica’s questions earlier this year about whether Thomas’s mother was paying rent. But Thomas’s lawyer said in the statement Thursday that she is not: “As part of the overall agreement and consistent with his past practice, Mr. Crow provided a life estate to Mrs. Williams, Justice Thomas’s mother, to live in this home for the rest of her life without rent.”

Shawn Boburg contributed to this report.

Read More:Justice Thomas says he used private jet for security reasons after Dobbs leak