Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has reportedly been sloppy with his mandatory financial disclosure paperwork for the past two decades — and that's probably the most generous way to summarize a series of errors and questionable omissions that have put the longest-serving member of the current court in the headlines.
Taken together, The Washington Post writes, these acts of negligent public accounting "have raised questions about how seriously Thomas views his responsibility to accurately report details about his finances to the public." There is disagreement about whether Thomas actually broke any laws, notably the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, or merely exploited a legal gray area — but which court would ever adjudicate that argument or pass judgment on a Supreme Court justice?
Most of the recent disclosures about Thomas involve undisclosed largesse from Harlan Crow, a conservative billionaire friend who has donated millions to Republicans and organizations dedicated to nudging the federal courts to the right. But Thomas faced calls for investigation or impeachment even before the new reports. Here's a list of some of the scandals that have made Thomas the face of judicial ethics reform and a drag on the legitimacy of the Supreme Court.
1. The Ginni Thomas texts non-recusal
Justice Thomas' wife, Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, has been a Republican factotum since before they were married in 1987, but she became a prominent conservative activist when she joined the Heritage Foundation as a White House liaison in 2000 and then founded a Tea Party organization, Liberty Central, in 2009 — with $500,000 from Harlan Crow, Politico reported in 2011.
Her partisan activism was always a discomfiting situation, since the spouses of Supreme Court justices typically aim for apolitical, but it became especially awkward after former President Donald Trump lost in 2020 and Ginni Thomas sent GOP state lawmakers and Trump's White House chief of staff Mark Meadows emails and text messages imploring them to fight to overturn President Biden's victory. She also attended — briefly, she said — Trump's rally outside the White House on Jan. 6, 2021, that bled into the Capitol riot.
Ginni Thomas' involvement in efforts to overturn Trump's loss, including pushing top White House officials to fight the defeat, constituted an evident conflict of interest for her husband when those legal challenges inevitably ended up at the Supreme Court. But Justice Thomas did not recuse himself.
In fact, Thomas wrote a dissent criticizing the majority of his colleagues who declined in February 2021 to hear a case from Pennsylvania Republicans seeking to disqualify mail-in ballots, among other rejected challenges from Trump and his allies. And Thomas cast the lone dissenting vote in January 2022 when the Supreme Court ordered the Trump White House to turn over insurrection-related documents to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 siege.
"It's easy to dismiss the demented texts and emails from a sitting justice's spouse to public officials who have long-standing professional connections to that justice as zany conspiracy theorizing," Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern wrote at Slate. But based on what we now know about Ginni Thomas' high-level advocacy for reversing Trump's loss and Clarence Thomas' actions on the high court, "a casual observer might assume they were working in tandem, with Clarence handling the law and Ginni working on the political side. They aren't particularly subtle about it."
Given the evidence, Justice Thomas "must recuse himself" from any case involving the 2020 election or Jan. 6, New York University legal ethics expert Stephen Gillers told The New York Times, and he "should have recused himself in the cases that have been heard up to now."
2. Luxury vacations from Crow
Thomas has been going on opulent vacations, paid for by the Dallas billionaire Harlan Crow, for more than 20 years, ProPublica reported in early April. Those vacations sometimes involved flights on Crow's private jet or cruises on his 162-foot yacht, including a 2019 island hopping trip to Indonesia that would have reportedly cost Thomas and his wife more than $500,000.
"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 reports, and Thomas did not report any of it on his financial disclosure forms, as required.
Even before ProPublica's report, Thomas had "engaged in a yearslong pattern of behaving in ways that other justices, and many elected politicians, do not," David Leonhardt writes at the Times. "From 1998 through 2003, Thomas accepted $42,200 in gifts, making him the top gift recipient on the court at the time," by about $36,000. After the Los Angeles Times highlighted these gifts in 2004, Thomas just stopped reporting them on his financial disclosure forms.
Thomas said in a statement that early in his tenure on the Supreme Court, "I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the court, was not reportable," and he has "endeavored to follow that counsel throughout my tenure."
Crow said "the hospitality we have extended to the Thomas' over the years," on vacations and with other conservative luminaries at his Adirondacks resort every summer, "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."
Even if Crow didn't personally have a direct case in front of the court, and "I certainly take the parties at their word" on that, "the reason Crow desires a friendship with Clarence Thomas is not principally for his hearty laugh or his storytelling," Mona Charen writes at The Bulwark. "It's because he's a justice on the Supreme Court who rules in ways Crow finds congenial," and if Thomas "were ever tempted to stray from the doctrinaire views the two share," might the risk of losing "access to the Bombardier Global 5000 and the private fishing guide" cause Thomas to "hesitate, if only unconsciously"?
"When money talks, the words need not take the form of 'Do this, and I'll give you that,'" Corey Robin writes at Politico. Money buys access and "a lifetime of conversation between men of power," and "in that fraternity of words and wealth, stories are swapped, trust is gained, respect is earned, ideas are shared, and preferences become policy."
3. Selling mother's home to Crow
Thomas also failed to report in 2014 that Crow bought three properties in Savannah, Georgia, he owned with his mother and the family of his late brother — including the house Thomas' 94-year-old mother still lives in, ProPublica reported. As part of the deal, the mother, Leola Williams, "was given an occupancy agreement to be able to live in the home for the rest of her life," CNN reports. "She lives rent-free but is responsible for paying the property taxes and insurance."
Thomas believed he didn't need to disclose the deal because, he says, he lost money on the deal, and he plans to now amend his 2014 disclosure form, a source close to Thomas told CNN. Crow told The Dallas Morning News he "assumed his mother owned the home," and he approached Thomas "with the idea that I might purchase that home for the purpose that in due course it could be the boyhood home of a great American," a museum honoring Thomas.
None of that wipes away the fact that Thomas violated the Ethics in Government Act, Gabe Roth, who heads the advocacy group Fix the Court, tells CNN. "If you're a Supreme Court justice, and you sell a property you own, you have to list the transaction in your annual disclosure. That's the law — even if Justice Thomas lost money, and even if the sale was to build a museum one day."
This is a big deal, and the Justice Department should open an investigation, as should Chief Justice John Roberts and Congress, former White House ethics lawyers Virginia Canter, Norman Eisen, and Richard Painter write at Slate. Thomas' behavior "calls his ethics into question and casts a shadow over the Supreme Court," and "he cannot cure that by simply amending his financial disclosures" now that he's been caught. "That might be sufficient if this were his first transgression," they add, "but it is not," and his myriad financial disclosure omissions have burned up all benefit of the doubt.
4. Reporting of income from defunct real estate firm
Thomas has repeatedly amended his financial disclosures after outside groups or news organizations have caught errors or omissions in his forms.
In 2011, he went back and changed his forms from 1998 to 2003 to reflect Ginni Thomas' $686,589 in income from the Heritage Foundation, plus two years of income from Hillsdale College in Michigan, saying the information was "inadvertently omitted due to a misunderstanding of the filing instructions" — even though in some previous years he had correctly reported his wife's income, the Post notes.
In 2020 Thomas amended his 2017 and 2018 disclosure forms to include reimbursements from his own teaching stint at Creighton University and speeches at the University of Kansas and the University of Georgia. And he has been reporting between $50,000 to $100,000 a year in rental income from a Nebraska real estate company in Ginni Thomas' family that hasn't existed since 2006, the Post reports. The company was dissolved, then re-established under a similar name, with the same address and Ginni Thomas' sister listed as the manager.
"Any presumption in favor of Thomas's integrity and commitment to comply with the law is gone," NYU's Gillers tells the Post. "His assurances and promises cannot be trusted. Is there more? What's the whole story? The nation needs to know."
5. Private school tuition from Crow
Thomas and his wife became legal guardians of his grandnephew Mark Martin in 1998 and raised him "as a son," as Thomas said recently, from age 6 to 19. And when Thomas decided to send his ward to private boarding school for high school, Crow picked up the tab for at least two years, at a cost of more than $100,000, ProPublica reports. A longtime Thomas friend, Mark Paoletta, confirmed that Crow paid a year of Martin's tuition at Randolph-Macon Academy in Virginia and another year at Hidden Lake Academy in Georgia.
Thomas did not report the gifted tuition on his disclosure forms. Paoletta argued he did not have to, because Martin was not a "dependent child" as defined by federal disclosure law. Legal ethics experts disagreed, especially since Thomas did report a $5,000 contribution to Martin's education from another friend in 2002, ProPublica notes.
"You can't be having secret financial arrangements," retired federal Judge Mark W. Bennett, who said he's friendly with Thomas, told ProPublica. "This is way outside the norm," George W. Bush White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter said. "This is way in excess of anything I've seen," and if anyone in the White House took that "amount of undisclosed gifts," they would be fired.
"This story is another attempt to manufacture a scandal about Justice Thomas," Paoletta said in a statement. "But let's be clear about what is supposedly scandalous now: Justice Thomas and his wife devoted 12 years of their lives to taking in and caring for a beloved child — who was not their own." Crow said he "has long been passionate about the importance of quality education" and has "supported many young Americans" at a "variety of schools," including Randolph-Macon, his alma mater.
"Harlan Crow has been subsidizing an extravagant lifestyle that Justice Thomas and his family could not otherwise afford," Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said. "This is a foul breach of ethics standards." He has asked Crow for a full accounting of his gifts to Thomas.
6. Secret contracting payments for Ginni Thomas
Conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo arranged $80,000 to $100,000 in secret consulting payments for Ginni Thomas in 2011 and 2012, telling GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway the billing paperwork should have "no mention of Ginni, of course," the Post reports. Leo told Conway to bill a nonprofit he advised, the Judicial Education Project, and funnel the money to Thomas' business, Liberty Consulting.
Leo has used a network of nonprofits to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on getting conservative judges on federal courts, and the Judicial Education Project filed several briefs before the court around the same time it was secretly, perhaps unknowingly, paying Ginni Thomas tens of thousands of dollars.
Leo told the Post that said Thomas' "long history of working on issues within the conservative movement" is "no secret," and her work for him "did not involve anything connected with either the [Supreme] Court's business or with other legal issues." He kept her name off the paperwork, he said, because "knowing how disrespectful, malicious, and gossipy people can be, I have always tried to protect the privacy of Justice Thomas and Ginni."
NYU's Gillers said Clarence Thomas would probably not have been required to recuse himself in cases where the Judicial Education Project had formally weighed in. But "the idea that Leonard Leo, who has a passionate ideological interest in how the court rules and who has worked hard for years to advance that interest, could pick up the phone and generate substantial compensation to Virginia Thomas, which also benefits Clarence Thomas — that idea is bad for the country, the court and the rule of law," he told the Post. "It's not the way the Supreme Court should do its business or allow its business to be done."
Updated May 5, 2023: This piece has been updated throughout to reflect recent developments.