Few Ethics Rules Bind Supreme Court, But Thomas Violated A Big One
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has another ethics problem, and this time, despite the near-total lack of binding ethics rules applying to the Supreme Court, he may have actually broken a law.
A Pro Publica investigation has found that for more than two decades, Thomas has been accepting lavish vacations from real estate billionaire Harlan Crow. And while the Supreme Court is not bound by the code of conduct that requires other federal judges to avoid even the “appearance of impropriety,” it is bound by a law requiring the disclosure of gifts over $415. Thomas would likely claim that the vacations Crow has gifted him don’t need to be disclosed because they fall under the category of “Food, lodging, or entertainment received as personal hospitality,” which “need not be reported.” But ProPublica identified two ways that Thomas’ flights on a Crow’s private jet, vacations on his 162-foot yacht, and annual stays in his private resort do violate the disclosure requirements.
First, the disclosure requirements apply to “gifts other than food, lodging or entertainment, such as transportation that substitutes for commercial transportation.” Like, say, flights on a private jet, or, for that matter, yacht travel between islands. Second, they apply to “gifts extended at property or facilities owned by an entity, rather than by an individual or an individual’s family, even if the entity is owned wholly or in part by an individual or an individual’s family”—and Crow’s private resort in the Adirondacks is owned through a company.
Thomas usually spends a week every summer at Camp Topridge, that resort in the Adirondacks, where there’s a painting of Thomas smoking cigars with Crow and Republican operatives including Federalist Society leader Leonard Leo. It’s a “camp” in the same sense that the Vanderbilt mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, are “cottages.”
The mountainous area draws billionaires from across the globe. Rooms at a nearby hotel built by the Rockefellers start at $2,250 a night. Crow’s invitation-only resort is even more exclusive. Guests stay for free, enjoying Topridge’s more than 25 fireplaces, three boathouses, clay tennis court and batting cage, along with more eccentric features: a lifesize replica of the Harry Potter character Hagrid’s hut, bronze statues of gnomes and a 1950s-style soda fountain where Crow’s staff fixes milkshakes.
At Camp Topridge, Thomas may be fishing and dining with business executives, major Republican donors, and leaders of right-wing think tanks. Crow told ProPublica he was “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.” It strains credulity to believe that the gatherings haven’t involved talk of politics, which would be relevant. But even if they (improbably) haven’t, the thing about vacationing with people is that even if no direct lobbying goes on, you’re going to intuitively understand them as your people, sharing your interests.
But that’s the routine vacation Thomas gets from Crow. In 2019, ProPublica reports, Thomas was flown to Indonesia on Crow’s jet for nine days going to sites like Komodo National Park and the volcanic lakes of Mount Kelimutu. Around 10 years ago, there was a yacht trip in New Zealand. ProPublica also found photographs of Thomas wearing the custom polo shirts Crow gives his yacht guests, one of which said “March 2007” and “Greek Islands.” Nice life, right?
This is not the self-image Thomas promotes. “I don’t have any problem with going to Europe, but I prefer the United States, and I prefer seeing the regular parts of the United States,” he recently claimed in an interview for—get this—a documentary about Clarence Thomas funded in part by Harlan Crow. Just, you know, the “regular parts of the United States” like a billionaire’s private resort with tons of servants and a replica of Hagrid’s hut.
“I prefer the RV parks. I prefer the Walmart parking lots to the beaches and things like that. There’s something normal to me about it,” he added. “I come from regular stock, and I prefer that—I prefer being around that.” On the Indonesia yacht trip, one of the stops was at a beach that can only be accessed by boat.
(And really, who actually prefers a Walmart parking lot to a beach? Maybe the beach of choice is on the Florida panhandle, but if you ask the people working at Walmart or shopping there because it’s the main store in town or it’s what they can afford, they’re probably going to tell you they’d prefer the beach, too. This claim from Thomas shows how fake this affectation is, how far he is from being a guy who is in Walmart parking lots because that’s just where he needs to be.)
Thomas also appears to use Crow’s jet for routine travel occasionally, with the jet going from Crow’s hometown of Dallas to Dulles airport, then somewhere Thomas is going, and then back to Dulles.
On July 7 last year, Crow’s jet made a 40-minute stop at Dulles and then flew to a small airport near Topridge, returning to Dulles six days later. Thomas was at the resort that week for his regular summer visit, according to a person who was there. Twice in recent years, the jet has followed the pattern when Thomas appeared at Crow’s properties in Dallas — once for the Jan. 4, 2018, swearing-in of Fifth Circuit Judge James Ho at Crow’s private library and again for a conservative think tank conference Crow hosted last May.
Thomas has even used the plane for a three-hour trip. On Feb. 11, 2016, the plane flew from Dallas to Dulles to New Haven, Connecticut, before flying back later that afternoon. ProPublica confirmed that Thomas was on the jet through Supreme Court security records obtained by the nonprofit Fix the Court, private jet data, a New Haven plane spotter and another person at the airport. There are no reports of Thomas making a public appearance that day, and the purpose of the trip remains unclear.
It would cost around $70,000 to charter a jet for such a trip. Thomas’ salary is $285,000 a year, though of course his wife Ginni also makes a substantial salary working for far-right groups with interests in Supreme Court cases. At least once, Ginni’s six-figure salary came from a group that had gotten a $500,000 contribution from Harlan Crow. Isn’t it cozy?
The law doesn’t prohibit Thomas from accepting these trips—in a clear demonstration of how broken ethics laws are when it comes to the Supreme Court—but he does have to disclose them, and he has not been doing that, just as he has not been recusing himself from cases in which his wife is in some way involved. Will Thomas face any consequences for apparently having violated the financial disclosure law again and again? The chances are slim, honestly. But once again he is personally dismantling the fraying credibility of the Supreme Court.
Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos.
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