Democrats are calling for an investigation after a ProPublica report on Thursday revealed that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has, for decades, covertly accepted luxury travel and gifts from a billionaire GOP donor.
According to ProPublica's reporting, Thomas failed to disclose the free luxury trips, yacht travels, private jet flights, and lakeside resort stays that he has enjoyed courtesy of Harlan Crow, a real estate tycoon and megadonor to Republican causes and politicians, who called Thomas a "dear friend."
"The highest court in the land shouldn't have the lowest ethical standards," Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, said in a statement. "This behavior is simply inconsistent with the ethical standards the American people expect of any public servant, let alone a Justice on the Supreme Court."
Thomas has traveled with Crow on the billionaire's private yacht to Indonesia, New Zealand, and Savannah, Georgia; flown on his personal jet for domestic trips; and stayed at Crow's private resort in upstate New York, hobnobbing with other conservative figures and business executive guests, ProPublica reported. These trips are estimated to have cost between tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars each.
"The hospitality we have extended to the Thomas’s over the years is no different from the hospitality we have extended to our many other dear friends," Crow told ProPublica in a statement. "We 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. More generally, I am unaware of any of our friends ever lobbying or seeking to influence Justice Thomas on any case, and I would never invite anyone who I believe had any intention of doing that. These are gatherings of friends."
Judicial employees, including Supreme Court justices, are required to report gifts that they, a spouse, or a dependent child receives that are valued at more than $415, according to court instructions for filing financial disclosures. Recent changes to the rules require federal judges to disclose more gifts that fall under "personal hospitality," including private jet travel and stays at hotels and resorts.
Thomas issued a statement on Friday calling Crow and his wife Kathy Crow among his "dearest friends," and said he was "advised" by colleagues that these trips were "not reportable."
"Early in my tenure at the Court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable," he said. "I have endeavored to follow that counsel throughout my tenure, and have always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines."
Thomas then noted the new guidelines. "And it is, of course, my intent to follow this guidance in the future."
Supreme Court justices are not bound by a code of conduct that all other federal judges adhere to; Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in 2011 that all members of the court, including justices, "consult" the code. There is also no process for investigating misconduct on the highest court.
Democrats have been pushing for the Supreme Court to formally adopt a code of conduct following reports of questionable relationships between conservative justices and political donors. Thomas has also recently been at the center of allegations of impropriety due to his wife Ginni Thomas's role in trying to overturn the 2020 election results. Thomas has refused to recuse himself from relevant cases before the Supreme Court.
Confidence in the Supreme Court dipped to an all-time low in June of last year, according to Gallup. Earlier this week, multiple senators, led by Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, called on Congress to compel the Supreme Court to adopt the code of conduct and institute other ethics reforms.
The ProPublica report has increased calls for an accountability process for justices.
Whitehouse, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Courts Subcommittee, said in a tweet that the ProPublica report "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 subsequently released a statement calling on Chief Justice John Roberts to immediately start an investigation into Justice Thomas.
Rep. Glenn Ivey, a House Judiciary Committee member, said in a statement that the details about Thomas's conduct in the report "shows incredibly poor judgment and undermines public confidence in the judiciary."
Other Democrats are renewing demands for Thomas's impeachment.
"This is beyond party or partisanship," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. "This degree of corruption is shocking - almost cartoonish. Thomas must be impeached."