WASHINGTON (AP) — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas acknowledged Thursday that he took three trips last year aboard a private plane owned by Republican megadonor Harlan Crow even as he rejected criticism over his failure to report trips in previous years.
It's the first time in years that Thomas has reported receiving hospitality from Crow. In a filing posted on the federal judiciary's website, the 75-year-old justice said he was complying with new guidelines from the federal judiciary for reporting travel, but did not include any earlier travel at Crow's expense, including a 2019 trip in Indonesia aboard the yacht owned by the wealthy businessman and benefactor of conservative causes.
The report comes amid a heightened focus on ethics at the high court that stems from a series of reports revealing that Thomas has for years received undisclosed expensive gifts, including international travel, from Crow.
The reporting by the investigative news site ProPublica also revealed that Justice Samuel Alito failed to disclose a private trip to Alaska he took in 2008 that was paid for by two wealthy Republican donors, one of whom repeatedly had interests before the court.
Supreme Court justices do not have a binding code of ethics and have resisted the idea that they adopt one or have one imposed on them by Congress. In the spring, all nine justices signed a statement of ethics that Chief Justice John Roberts provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Roberts has acknowledged that the justices can do more to address ethical concerns.
But neither the statement nor Roberts' comments assuaged Senate Democrats. The Democratic-controlled committee approved an ethics code for the court in July on a party-line vote. The legislation has little chance of passing the Senate — it would need at least nine GOP votes, and Republicans have strongly opposed it — or the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Elliot Berke, a lawyer representing Thomas, issued a blistering statement defending the justice's conduct and taking aim at his critics.
“The attacks on Justice Thomas are nothing less than ridiculous and dangerous, and they set a terrible precedent for political blood sport through federal ethics filings,” Berke said. “Justice Thomas’s amended report answers — and utterly refutes— the charges trumped up in this partisan feeding frenzy.”
But two ethics experts who have advised justices or nominees to the high court said it has been clear to them for years that travel on private planes must be reported.
"You report the free trips on the jets, the private jets, if you take them. I don’t get this idea that, ‘Gee, the rules changed on us.’ That’s just a lot of hogwash," said Richard Painter, who was the White House's chief ethics lawyer when Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts were nominated to the Supreme Court. Painter now believes the court needs its own ethics lawyer as well as an inspector general to investigate possible judicial misconduct.
Stephen Gillers, whose advice has been sought by now-retired Justice Stephen Breyer, said in an email, “The failure to report private plane travel paid by a corporate donor has always been a glaring omission in the Thomas filings.”
One trip Thomas reported was to Crow's lodge in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. ProPublica has reported that Thomas visits there every year.
The other two trips were to Dallas, where he spoke at conferences sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Thomas noted that court officials recommended that he avoid commercial travel for one of the trips, in mid-May, because of concerns about the justices' security following the leak of the court's draft abortion opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade.
The justice also belatedly acknowledged that Crow had purchased the home in Savannah, Georgia. Thomas and other family members owned the house, along with two neighboring properties. The sale was completed in 2014, but Thomas said he erroneously thought he didn't have to report it because “this sale resulted in a capital loss.”
In reporting that he and his wife have assets worth $1.2 million to $2.7 million, Thomas also corrected several other mistakes from earlier reports. These include the omission of accounts at a credit union that last year were worth $100,000 to $250,000 and a life insurance policy in his wife's name that was valued at less than $100,000.
Thomas is considering whether to amend prior reports, he noted.
The annual financial reports for Thomas and Alito were released Thursday, nearly three months after those of the other seven justices. Thomas and Alito were granted 90-day extensions.
Alito reported assets worth $2.8 million to $7.4 million. While most of his holdings are in mutual funds, Alito retains shares of stocks in energy and other companies that sometimes force his withdrawal from Supreme Court cases.
Alito, in an unusual column in the Wall Street Journal, said he was under no obligation to report the Alaska trip or step aside from any cases involving the benefactor.