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Report on Justice Thomas' trips renews calls for a Supreme Court code of ethics

Justice Clarence Thomas joins other members of the Supreme Court as they pose for a new group portrait, at the Supreme Court building in Washington, Friday, Oct. 7, 2022.
J. Scott Applewhite
Justice Clarence Thomas joins other members of the Supreme Court as they pose for a new group portrait, at the Supreme Court building in Washington, Friday, Oct. 7, 2022.

Updated April 6, 2023 at 6:43 PM ET

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas accepted luxury vacations from a major GOP donor, according to a new ProPublica investigation, renewing the call from Democrats for a code of ethics at the high court.

The ProPublica investigation raises a series of potential conflicts of interest between Thomas and Harlan Crow, a billionaire businessman. Crow took Thomas and his wife, Ginni Thomas, on vacations, including cruises and private flights, that could cost millions of dollars; Thomas did not report them as part of his annual financial disclosure, according to the report.

Neither Thomas nor the Supreme Court has commented on the details of the ProPublica investigation. But plenty of Democratic members of Congress did.

"The highest court in the land shouldn't have the lowest ethical standards," said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. "This behavior is simply inconsistent with the ethical standards the American people expect of any public servant, let alone a Justice on the Supreme Court."

The backlash came from Democrats in both chambers. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Josh Harder, Judy Chu and Ilhan Omarall took to Twitter to voice either their disapproval in Thomas or their support of creating an ethical standard or code for the Supreme Court.

Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats Cory Booker and Alex Padilla also issued statements.

"There is no reason that the justices who sit on the highest court in the country should continue to be held to ethical standards that are lower than those of any employee of our federal government," said Booker in a statement. "It underscores why we must implement a binding, enforceable code of conduct for the Supreme Court. Americans deserve a Supreme Court that is beyond reproach, commands respect, and does not undermine people's faith in our justice system."

Padilla also chimed in on the need for a code of ethics.

"Justices must be held to the same rigorous ethical standards as other public officials — Thomas' actions make crystal clear that we need an enforceable code of ethics for the Supreme Court," Padilla said in a statement to NPR.

And Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who is also on the Judiciary Committee, took to Twitter to criticize Thomas.

They were joined by Sens. Jeff Merkley, Elizabeth Warren, Chris Murphy and Ed Markey, among others, who also called for a code of ethics.

"The billionaire we are talking about here, Harlan Crow, he's not just a businessman he's also deeply involved in politics," ProPublica reporterJustin Elliot told Morning Edition. "He is on the board of think tanks that do Supreme Court advocacy and he has been involved in sort of right-wing legal politics for years."

Crow sits on the board of the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank, the board of trustees at the American Enterprise Instituteand, according to ProPublica, was "an early patron of the powerful anti-tax group Club for Growth."

Crow told ProPublica that his "hospitality" to Thomas was "no different from the hospitality we have extended to our many other dear friends."

This is not the first time Thomas has spurred the ethics debate

The U.S. Supreme Court is the only judicial body in the country not governed by a code of ethics. Such a code has been previously supported by members of both partiesthough there hasn't been enough bipartisan support to approve measures introduced.

Justice Thomas and his wife were at the center of the debate over whether or not the court should adopt a code of ethics last year after news reports that Ginni Thomas exchanged text messages with then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, asking him to take steps to overturn the 2020 elections in favor of former President Donald Trump.

Also last year, Justice Samuel Alito came under fire after The New York Times reported that he had shared with a conservative activist in advance of the court's opinion the decision of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the landmark decision that allowed private for-profit corporations to decline to provide their employees access to contraception. Alito denied the claim.

Earlier this year, the Project on Government Oversight and the Lawyers Defending American Democracy each attempted to write a Supreme Court Ethics code. But a lack of political consensus — or indeed within the court iself — has prevented any progress on an official code.

According to the Congressional Research Service, "Legislative proposals to impose a code of conduct on the Supreme Court raise an array of legal questions" and there are outstanding questions over how such a code would be enforced and whether or not the court, which determines the constitutionality of laws, would accept it.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
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