ProPublica has a wowzer of a Clarence Thomas story. If this checks out, it’s massive.
IN LATE JUNE 2019, right after the U.S. Supreme Court released its final opinion of the term, Justice Clarence Thomas boarded a large private jet headed to Indonesia. He and his wife were going on vacation: nine days of island-hopping in a volcanic archipelago on a superyacht staffed by a coterie of attendants and a private chef.
If Thomas had chartered the plane and the 162-foot yacht himself, the total cost of the trip could have exceeded $500,000. Fortunately for him, that wasn’t necessary: He was on vacation with real estate magnate and Republican megadonor Harlan Crow, who owned the jet — and the yacht, too.
For more than two decades, Thomas has accepted luxury trips virtually every year from the Dallas businessman without disclosing them, documents and interviews show. A public servant who has a salary of $285,000, he has vacationed on Crow’s superyacht around the globe. He flies on Crow’s Bombardier Global 5000 jet. He has gone with Crow to the Bohemian Grove, the exclusive California all-male retreat, and to Crow’s sprawling ranch in East Texas. And Thomas typically spends about a week every summer at Crow’s private resort in the Adirondacks.
The extent and frequency of Crow’s apparent gifts to Thomas have no known precedent in the modern history of the U.S. Supreme Court.
These trips appeared nowhere on Thomas’ financial disclosures. His failure to report the flights appears to violate a law passed after Watergate that requires justices, judges, members of Congress and federal officials to disclose most gifts, two ethics law experts said. He also should have disclosed his trips on the yacht, these experts said.
Justice Thomas has not responded to requests for comments. Harlan Crow says this was just “hospitality,” not a bribe. This is just stuff he does for all his friends. Other high-level judges who commented for this article are pretty much gobsmacked.
Long an influential figure in pro-business conservative politics, Crow has spent millions on ideological efforts to shape the law and the judiciary. Crow and his firm have not had a case before the Supreme Court since Thomas joined it, though the court periodically hears major cases that directly impact the real estate industry. The details of his discussions with Thomas over the years remain unknown, and it is unclear if Crow has had any influence on the justice’s views.
In his statement, Crow said that he and his wife have never discussed a pending or lower court case with Thomas. “We have never sought to influence Justice Thomas on any legal or political issue,” he added.
The Washington Post has not independently confirmed ProPublica’s reporting, but adds some commentary.
Federal law mandates that top officials from the three branches of government, including the Supreme Court, file annual forms detailing their finances, outside income and spouses’ sources of income, with each branch determining its own reporting standards.
Judges are prohibited from accepting gifts from anyone with business before the court. Until recently, however, the judicial branch had not clearly defined an exemption for gifts considered “personal hospitality.”
Revised rules adopted by a committee of the Judicial Conference, the courts’ policymaking body, seek to provide a fuller accounting. The rules took effect March 14.
Gifts such as an overnight stay at a personal vacation home owned by a friend remain exempt from reporting requirements. But the revised rules require disclosure when judges are treated to stays at commercial properties, such as hotels, ski resorts or corporate hunting lodges. The changes also clarify that judges must report travel by private jet.
So, whether Thomas’s acceptance of “hospitality” strictly violated rules in place at the time is uncertain.
Congressional Democrats are calling for Thomas to resign, which of course he will not. Dick Durban says the Senate Judiciary Committee will take action.
Update: From Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern (boldface added):
We will doubtless spend a few news cycles expressing outrage that Harlan Crow has spent millions of dollars lavishing the Thomases with lux vacations and high-end travel and barely pretended to separate business and pleasure,giving half a million dollars to a Tea Party group founded by Ginni Thomas in 2011 (which funded her own $120,000 salary). But because the justices are left to police themselves and opt not to do so, we will turn to other matters in due time. Before the outrage dries up, however, it is worth zeroing in on two aspects of the ProPublica report that do have lasting legal implications. First, the same people who benefited from the lax status quo continue to fight against any meaningful reforms that might curb the justices’ gravy train. Second, the rules governing Thomas’ conduct over these years, while terribly insufficient, actually did require him to disclose at least some of these extravagant gifts. The fact that he ignored the rules anyway illustrates just how difficult it will be to force the justices to obey the law: Without the strong threat of enforcement, a putative public servant like Thomas will thumb his nose at the law.
It’s worth reading the whole thing. If you run into the Slate paywall you should be able to read the article in an incognito window.
In other news: The Dominion defamation trial will begin April 17. David Kurtz at Talking Points Memo gives us the potential witness list:
- Rupert Murdoch
- Lachlan Murdoch
- Tucker Carlson
- Sean Hannity
- Lou Dobbs
- Maria Bartiromo
- Jeanine Pirro
- Bret Baier
- Dana Perino
- Paul Ryan (Yes, that one! He’s on the Fox board.)
- Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott
- Fox chief legal officer Viet Dinh
We don’t know these people will be required to testify, but they might. Should be a fun trial.