Speed Reads

Man of the People

Clarence Thomas, under scrutiny for regular lavish trips from GOP donor, stopped reporting gifts in 2004

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has taken luxury vacations nearly every year over the past two decades, paid for by billionaire Republican mega-donor Harlan Crow, and disclosed none of them on his financial disclosure forms, ProPublica reported Thursday. The trips, sometimes involving flights on Crow's private jets or cruises on his superyacht, are likely worth millions or dollars. One island-hopping vacation in 2019 would have cost Thomas and his wife, Ginni Thomas, more than $500,000, ProPublica estimates. 

"The extent and frequency of Crow's apparent gifts to Thomas have no known precedent in the modern history of the U.S. Supreme Court," ProPublica says. Its report reinvigorated calls from Democrats and good-government groups for Supreme Court justices to be required to adhere to a code of ethics. "The highest court in the land shouldn't have the lowest ethical standards," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Thomas, who earns a salary of $285,000 a year, said in a recent documentary he prefers "the RV parks" and "the Walmart parking lots to the beaches and things like that." Crow helped finance the documentary.

ProPublic pieced together Thomas' secret travels from flight logs, internal documents from Crow's employees, and interviews with dozens of people, including an Indonesian scuba instructor and 15 former crew members from Crow's 162-foot yacht, the Michaela Rose. Thomas has only reported two gifts since 2004, The Washington Post reports: an award from Yale Law School, valued at $530, and a $6,564 bust of Frederick Douglass given to him by Crow.

Thomas, who has been on the Supreme Court since 1991, stopped reporting gifts after the Los Angeles Times published a front-page report in 2004 on the tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts he had accepted over the previous six years — far more than any other justice at the time — much of it from Crow.

Supreme Court justices will be required to report private jet travel and other hospitality gifts under new court rules quietly adopted earlier this year. Ethics law experts contacted by ProPublica said it's pretty clear Thomas violated a 1978 federal ethics law, though other experts said he may have operated within the legal gray area of its "personal hospitality" exemption.

Thomas did not comment on ProPublica's bombshell report, but Crow issued a statement saying the unsolicited "hospitality we have extended to the Thomas's over the years is no different from the hospitality we have extended to our many other dear friends," and he has "never asked about a pending or lower court case" or "sought to influence Justice Thomas on any legal or political issue." 

Read ProPublica's full report for equisite details about Thomas' Crow-funded vacations and Crow's Adirondacks resort the justice visits every summer.