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Report on trips Justice Clarence Thomas accepted from GOP megadonor reignites calls for reform

Washington — Democrats are calling for stricter ethics rules for Supreme Court justices in the wake of a new report detailing luxury vacations that Justice Clarence Thomas has accepted over the years from a Republican megadonor.

The report, published Thursday by the news outlet ProPublica, is the latest to prompt criticism of Thomas and reignite calls from Democratic lawmakers for Congress to require the nation's highest court to adopt binding ethics rules.

Citing travel records and interviews with employees, tour guides and fellow travelers, the ProPublica investigation details the luxury trips Thomas accepted from Texas real estate magnate and Republican donor Harlan Crow for more than 20 years. The travel included trips to Indonesia in June 2019 aboard Crow's private jet and yacht, an exclusive all-male retreat in California and Crow's ranch in East Texas. Thomas also vacations each summer at Crow's private resort in the Adirondacks, according to ProPublica, which noted that the trips "appeared nowhere on Thomas' financial disclosures."

In a statement to the news outlet, Crow said he and his wife have been "very dear friends" with Thomas and his wife, Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, since 1996, and have extended "hospitality" to them, as they have done to other friends. Crow added that he and his wife "have never asked about a pending or lower court case, and Justice Thomas has never discussed one, and we have never sought to influence Justice Thomas on any legal or political issue." 

On Friday, Thomas responded to the report in a statement of his own, saying that he had "sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary" earlier in his career about accepting "personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court." He said he was advised it "was not reportable." 

"I have endeavored to follow that counsel throughout my tenure, and have always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines," Thomas said. "These guidelines are now being changed, as the committee of the Judicial Conference responsible for financial disclosure for the entire federal judiciary just this past month announced new guidance. And, it is, of course, my intent to follow this guidance in the future."

The Judicial Conference of the United States recently adopted new rules requiring "judicial officers" to disclose more information about personal hospitality gifts.

Democrats quickly criticized Thomas and said ProPublica's findings demonstrate the need for a written code of conduct for Supreme Court justices, who are not covered by binding ethics rules.

Justice Clarence Thomas sits during a group photo of the justices at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on April 23, 2021. ERIN SCHAFF/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Thomas' actions as detailed in the report were "simply inconsistent with the ethical standards the American people expect of any public servant, let alone a Justice on the Supreme Court."

"Today's report demonstrates, yet again, that Supreme Court Justices must be held to an enforceable code of conduct, just like every other federal judge," Durbin said in a statement. "The Pro Publica report is a call to action, and the Senate Judiciary Committee will act."

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who has long called for more transparency and accountability within the federal judiciary, said the report about Thomas's relationship with Crow requires further investigation.

"This cries out for the kind of independent investigation that the Supreme Court — and only the Supreme Court, across the entire government— refuses to perform," he said on Twitter

Whitehouse called on Chief Justice John Roberts to ensure a "robust investigation" takes place.

"Who were Thomas's companions on these free undisclosed vacations, and what interests did those undisclosed companions have before the Court? The question is obvious," he tweeted.

Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Brian Schatz of Hawaii pushed for legislative action on judicial ethics reform.

"There is a code of conduct that applies to all federal judges except 9," Murphy tweeted. "It's no longer ok for the Supreme Court to be the only federal court without a binding ethical code."

The Connecticut Democrat has introduced the Supreme Court Ethics Act each Congress for more than a decade, and he again advocated for its passage. The proposal, a version of which has also been introduced in the House by Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia, would require the Judicial Conference to create a code of ethical conduct for Supreme Court justices and federal judges.

Murphy's bill has backing from 30 Senate Democrats, including Durbin. It's unclear whether the plan can garner enough support from Republicans to advance in the Senate.

ProPublica's report is the latest to spotlight the lack of ethics rules for Supreme Court justices. Revelations last year that Ginni Thomas pushed former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to pursue efforts to overturn the 2020 election sparked an appetite among lawmakers for legislation mandating a code of conduct for Supreme Court members.

But those legislative efforts stalled, and Republicans defended Thomas's ability to remain impartial despite his wife's political activities. 

Still, the creation of a code of conduct for the Supreme Court, adopted internally or imposed externally, was one of the few reforms that received support by President Biden's Commission on the Supreme Court.

The bipartisan panel of 36 legal scholars, lawyers and former federal judges warned in its final report, issued in December 2021, that "not having a formally adopted code might not be best practice for the court," and said embracing one "could promote important institutional values."

While there is a code of conduct for federal judges, adopted by the Judicial Conference in 1973, it does not cover Supreme Court justices. The rules for members of the federal judiciary state that a judge "should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities."

Chief Justice John Roberts said in a 2011 year-end report that members of the nation's highest court do consult the code of conduct in assessing their ethical obligations, and Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan told a House panel in 2019 that justices follow the code.

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