Will new Clarence Thomas revelations bring Supreme Court changes?

More reports of billionaire-funded vacations for the justice raise new questions about ethics reform

clarence thomas
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Turns out Clarence Thomas took a lot more billionaire-funded vacations than we knew. ProPublica this week reported that the Supreme Court justice had taken "at least 38 destination vacations" — including a Bahamas yacht trip, trips to high-profile events and more — all provided by "benefactors who share the ideology that drives his jurisprudence." The report adds to the mounting pressure on Thomas, already under scrutiny for other vacations, tuition and even RV financing provided by his wealthy associates.

Those perks "often went unreported on the justice's financial disclosure forms," CNN noted, raising questions about whether he broke the law. And Politico pointed out the latest report provided fresh fodder for Democratic critics of Thomas. "Justice Thomas has brought shame upon himself and the United States Supreme Court with his acceptance of massive, repeated and undisclosed gifts," Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) wrote online. "The height of hypocrisy," added Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).

Notably, few Republicans stepped forward to defend Thomas from the latest report. Conservative outlets like National Review and Fox News were apparently silent on the topic. One site, Newsbusters, blamed CNN for pushing an "anti-Thomas hit piece" and claimed there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the justice. But the Washington Examiner, a right-leaning publication, noted that GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were largely "staying silent" about Thomas' luxury vacations. Can Thomas justify his vacations, and failure to disclose? What will the latest revelations mean for ethics reform at the Supreme Court?

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What the commentators are saying

"Thomas is paid like a government employee but lives like a king," Jonathan Chait wrote at New York magazine. After previous revelations of that largesse, conservatives portrayed the gifts as "pure generosity" borne of genuine friendship that had nothing to do with Thomas' Supreme Court service or ideology. Now, though, the right is "barely making any effort to contest the specifics of the allegations against him" and attacking ProPublica's reporting as a self-evident smear. The problem isn't the reporting though. It's that "Thomas's contempt for ethical norms that is tarnishing the court's legitimacy."

Thomas isn't the only justice to accept gifts of travel, The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus wrote, "but we know about those trips because the justices disclosed the gifts." Even if the new trips had been properly reported, "the extent of Thomas's travel appears extraordinary." That's "conduct unbecoming any public official." The justice's allies seem convinced that the stream of revelations about Thomas' billionaire-funded lifestyle is part of an unfair smear, "but it is Thomas who is doing the discrediting."

It's fair to question whether Thomas' jurisprudence is guided by his sense of the law or whether he is "unable to abandon the ideological preferences of his wealthy allies," Noah Bookbinder and Dennis Aftergut write at the Los Angeles Times. So what should be done? First, Congress should pass "constitutionally appropriate" legislation to guide when justices should recuse themselves from questionable cases. And either the Supreme Court or the Department of Justice should do a proper investigation of Thomas. "The Supreme Court clearly needs a reminder that although judges interpret the law, they are not above it."

What's next?

Democrats are once again calling for Thomas' resignation, MSNBC reported. That seems unlikely to happen, but the push for Supreme Court ethics reform will continue. "Now it's up to Chief Justice Roberts and the other Justices to act on ethics reform to save their own reputations and the Court's integrity," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) wrote online. "If the Court will not act, then Congress must continue to."

But the latest revelations are "unlikely to result in congressional passage of Supreme Court ethics reform," CNN reported. A bill to impose new ethical requirements on the court has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee but probably won't muster enough GOP support to overcome the inevitable filibuster. And the Supreme Court might rebuff such a law even if it did pass. "No provision in the Constitution gives them the authority to regulate the Supreme Court – period," Justice Sam Alito said last month. And for now, at least, the court itself seems unable or unwilling to reform its own ethical standards.

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Joel Mathis

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.