Justice Thomas’ Refusal to Disclose Luxury Trips: What Are The Implications?

by Madison Thomas
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Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said on Friday that he didn’t have to tell anyone about all the trips he and his wife went on, which were paid for by a rich Republican donor called Harlan Crow.

Justice Thomas and his wife, Kathy, took undisclosed luxury trips with people they consider close friends. According to Thomas, some judges told him that this kind of hospitality with friends who don’t have business before the court didn’t need to be reported. He didn’t mention names of which justices or judges he consulted about this.

This Thursday, a nonprofit investigative news group called ProPublica shared that Thomas, a justice with over 31 years of experience, has been receiving luxurious holidays sponsored by Crow for more than twenty years.

Thomas (age 74) and his wife Virginia have gone on vacation with Crow, who owns a yacht and private jet. They even stayed at Crow’s expensive vacation spot in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. It was estimated the total cost of their trip to Indonesia in 2019 could have been over half a million dollars if they’d taken care of it themselves instead.

Supreme Court justices, similar to other federal judges, must give an account each year of any gifts that they have gotten. But, if the gift is from someone they are close too, then they don’t have to tell the court about it.

Ethics experts don’t really agree if Justice Thomas had to tell people about the trips he took. The federal judiciary said that every judge, including Supreme Court justices, have to say where they traveled, except when visiting friends’ homes for vacation. Stephen Gillers, a famous person who studies legal ethics at New York State University, thinks Justice Thomas should obey guidelines and not avoid his responsibility.

Thomas is trying to blame someone else for not reporting a generous gift he received more than 30 years ago. He claims that Justices at the time told him it was OK, but most of them are now dead and cannot prove if they said it or not.

Charles Geyh, a professor of law from Indiana University who studies the codes of conduct for judges, said in an email that if Thomas had told people about all the details of getting expensive gifts from ProPublica (like staying in fancy places and having lots of money spendings over many years) from someone who is a big supporter and believer of the court on which he serves, no justice would have advised him not to share this information.

Arthur Hellman, an ethics expert from the University of Pittsburgh, said that even if Thomas thought he didn’t have to tell anyone about Crow’s gifts, it was better that he did anyway. In other words, telling people what happened would help make sure everyone trusts the courts.

Thomas, who has been in the court for a long time, said he always tries to follow rules that tell him what information he needs to share. When talking about the recent changes, Thomas said, “I will keep doing this in the future”.

The new law states that everyone giving gifts to judges must tell the government what they have given. This could make judges more reluctant to accept fancy presents, like Harlan Crow’s luxurious properties. So it is likely that Justice Thomas will receive fewer of these kinds of gifts in the future.

Democratic lawmakers believe that Supreme Court justices should have an ethics code with stronger rules about travel and gifts. It is uncertain if the justices or Congress will agree to do this.

Thomas and his family have “joined” Crow on multiple trips for over 25 years, as two families do. Last year, it was revealed that Thomas didn’t step away from election cases when his wife (a conservative activist) asked politicians and the White House to not accept the outcome of the elections.

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