Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ decadeslong friendship with real estate tycoon Harlan Crow and Samuel Alito’s luxury travel with billionaire Paul Singer have raised questions about influence and ethics at the nation's highest court.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday announced plans to hold a hearing in the coming days “regarding the need to restore confidence in the Supreme Court’s ethical standards,” citing ProPublica’s reporting on over 20 years’ worth of luxury travel accepted by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas from a billionaire Republican megadonor.
The planned hearing is detailed in a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts and follows comments made by the committee chair, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, last week in which he called for an “enforceable code of conduct” for the justices.
If “the Court does not resolve this issue on its own, the Committee will consider legislation to resolve it,” the letter said.
Monday’s letter echoed a call from 22 Democratic lawmakers last week for Roberts to launch an investigation into Thomas’ trips and his failure to report them. That group included members of both the House and Senate judiciary committees.
In their separate letter to Roberts, those lawmakers — including Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson — wrote that as chief justice, Roberts is duty-bound to conduct a “swift, thorough, independent and transparent investigation” in order to “safeguard public faith in the judiciary.”
Both letters hinted at congressional action to strengthen the court’s rules around ethics and disclosure. The court “has barely acknowledged, much less investigated” the details reported by ProPublica, the lawmakers wrote Friday, citing their alarm over “allegations of unethical, and potentially unlawful, conduct at the Supreme Court.”
“Should the Supreme Court continue to refuse to act swiftly on these matters,” the letter added, “we will continue to press Congress to act to restore accountability and ethics at the highest Court in the land.”
The flurry of activity by the lawmakers comes in response to ProPublica’s report revealing that for years, Thomas had accepted luxury trips from Dallas billionaire Harlan Crow without disclosing them. The trips included international cruises on Crow’s superyacht, flights on Crow’s private jet and regular summer getaways at Crow’s private lakeside resort in the Adirondacks.
A Supreme Court spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the letters.
In a brief statement on Friday, Thomas cited “guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary” that “this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable.”
Crow previously told ProPublica that he and his wife never discussed a pending case with Thomas and had “never sought to influence Justice Thomas on any legal or political issue.” He also said that he is “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.”
An ethics law passed after the Watergate scandal requires justices and other federal officials to disclose most gifts to the public. That law, legal ethics experts told ProPublica, clearly mandates that gifts of transportation, including private jet flights, be reported.
Urging the court to adopt stricter rules on Monday, Senate Judiciary Committee members noted that justices’ “ethical standards” have raised concerns before. They pointed to a series of articles in 2011 that revealed some of the close ties between Thomas and Crow.
“This problem could have been resolved then. Instead, according to ProPublica’s reporting, Mr. Crow’s dispensation of favors escalated in secret during the years that followed. Now the Court faces a crisis of public confidence in its ethical standards that must be addressed,” they wrote.
In the letter sent last week, the Democrats — whose ranks include Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York and Rep. Adam Schiff of California — cited a pressing need for updated rules for the court. “It is well past time for the Supreme Court to align with the rest of government in a proper code of ethics enforced by independent investigation and reporting,” they wrote.
The lawmakers also questioned Thomas’ defense, noting that the so-called personal hospitality exemption to the law is “not meant to allow government officials to hide from the public extravagant gifts by wealthy political interests.”
And they raised concerns around the broader ethical implications of a Supreme Court justice taking undisclosed trips with other guests, calling for more robust disclosure and ethics rules for the court. In one instance detailed in ProPublica’s report, Thomas was joined at Crow’s Adirondacks resort by corporate executives, major Republican donors and one of the leaders of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Whitehouse and others have already introduced a bill this year aimed at tightening the court’s rules, among other reforms.
Spokespeople for Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.