Lawmakers Call for Tighter Ethics Code After Revelations About Justice Thomas

WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers reiterated calls on Thursday to tighten ethics rules for the Supreme Court after a report revealed that Justice Clarence Thomas had accepted luxury gifts from a major conservative donor without disclosing them.

An investigation by ProPublica described how Justice Thomas accompanied the donor, Harlan Crow, a real estate billionaire, on a series of vacations for nearly two decades. The trips included extended stays on Mr. Crow’s yacht, flights on Mr. Crow’s private jet and visits to Mr. Crow’s all-male private retreat in Monte Rio, Calif.

The disclosure early Thursday renewed scrutiny of Justice Thomas, who has long faced questions over conflicts of interest in part because of the political activities of his wife, Virginia Thomas.

No formal code of conduct on the Supreme Court specifically bars the justice from taking the trips mentioned in ProPublica’s reporting. But under the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, justices, like federal judges, must file a financial disclosure each year that lists gifts of more than $415 in avoidance of even an “appearance of impropriety.” The cost of one of the trips with Mr. Crow may have exceeded $500,000, according to ProPublica.

Lawmakers have seized on the lack of enforceable ethics code governing Supreme Court justices, urging that they be held to standards similar to those in place for members of the executive and legislative branches.

The Senate is considering a bill that would codify that practice, in line with past legislation. And new rules adopted in March now require the justices to report travel by private jet and extended stays at commercial properties including hotels, resorts and hunting lodges.

Understand the U.S. Supreme Court’s Term

A race to the right. After a series of judicial bombshells in June that included eliminating the right to abortion, a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives returned to the bench in October — and there are few signs that the court’s rightward shift is slowing. Here’s a closer look at the term:

Affirmative action. The marquee cases of the term are challenges to the race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. While the court has repeatedly upheld affirmative-action programs, a six-justice conservative supermajority may put more than 40 years of precedent at risk.

Voting rights. The role race may play in government decision-making also figures in a case that is a challenge under the Voting Rights Act to an Alabama electoral map that a lower court had said diluted the power of Black voters. The case is a major new test of the Voting Rights Act in a court that has gradually limited the law’s reach in other contexts.

Discrimination against gay couples. The justices heard an appeal from a web designer who objects to providing services for same-sex marriages in a case that pits claims of religious freedom against laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. The court last considered the issue in 2018 in a similar dispute, but failed to yield a definitive ruling.

Tech companies’ legal shield. The court is reviewing a sweeping law that prevents tech companies such as Facebook and Google from being held responsible for the content posted on their site. The case could have potentially seismic ramifications for social media platforms and alter the very structure of the internet.

Student loan cancellation challenges. The justices heard arguments about President Biden’s plan to forgive an estimated $400 billion in federal student loan debt. Conservative states have called the plan an abuse of executive authority. The court is exploring whether the states are even entitled to sue.

On Thursday, lawmakers emphasized that stricter standards were necessary.

“In every other place in government, there is an ethics rule that applies,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat of Rhode Island who sits on the Judiciary Committee’s panel that oversees federal courts, said in an interview. “The only place in the United States government where that is not true is the United States Supreme Court, where the nine justices have exempted themselves from this very basic process.”

Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who oversees the Senate Judiciary Committee, echoed that sentiment.

“The highest court in the land shouldn’t have the lowest ethical standards,” Mr. Durbin said in a statement, adding that Justice Thomas’s conduct was “simply inconsistent with the ethical standards the American people expect of any public servant, let alone a justice on the Supreme Court.”

Justice Thomas has reliably voted with the conservative majority in far-reaching decisions that overturned a constitutional right to abortion, expanded the role of religion in public life and gave Americans a broad right to carry guns outside the home.

He was narrowly confirmed to the court in 1991 after a brutal hearing in which he denied accusations of sexual harassment.

The friendship between Justice Thomas and Mr. Crow has raised eyebrows since the 1990s. Mr. Crow has donated to causes led by Ms. Thomas, including financing a Savannah, Ga., library project in Justice Thomas’s name, and personally contributing $500,000 to Ms. Thomas, who at the time was organizing for a Tea Party-related group.

According to ProPublica, the justice spends about a week every summer at Mr. Crow’s lakeside resort in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. The property features three boathouses, an artificial waterfall, a clay tennis court and a replica of Hagrid’s hut from “Harry Potter.”

The Supreme Court did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mr. Crow denied any improper influence over the judicial system.

More on the U.S. Supreme Court

“The hospitality we have extended to the Thomases over the years is no different from the hospitality we have extended to our many other dear friends,” he said in a statement. “We have been most fortunate to have a great life of many friends and financial success, and we have always placed a priority on spending time with our family and friends.”

Questions of conflict of interest have dogged Justice Thomas for years, in part because of Ms. Thomas’s political work.

Text messages Ms. Thomas sent to top officials in the Trump administration in the weeks between the 2020 presidential election and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol demonstrated that she was actively involved in influencing the legal effort to subvert the race. The disclosure raised questions over whether Justice Thomas should have stepped aside on cases related to the riot.

Instead Justice Thomas participated in several cases involving Jan. 6 or the outcome of the 2020 election.

Some lawmakers, in calling for justices to abide by a code of conduct, urged that Justice Thomas be held to account and step down.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, called for his impeachment.

“This is beyond party or partisanship,” she added on Twitter. “This degree of corruption is shocking – almost cartoonish.”

Activists pushing for reforms to the court demanded more structural changes.

“Nothing is going to change without a wholesale, lawmaker-led reimagining of its responsibilities when it comes to basic measures of oversight,” said Gabriel Roth, the executive director of Fix the Court.

Abbie VanSickle contributed reporting.

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