Five congressional Democrats have asked U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas over gifts he reportedly received from conservative billionaires.
The letter (pdf), dated Aug. 11, was signed by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), and Ted Lieu (D-Calif.).
After left-wing media outlet ProPublica published a series of reports in recent months, the lawmakers urged the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) “to launch an investigation into Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas for consistently failing to report significant gifts he received from Harlan Crow and other billionaires for nearly two decades—in defiance of his duty under federal law.”
The most recent ProPublica report, which was published Aug. 10, stated that Justice Thomas “has secretly reaped the benefits from a network of wealthy and well-connected patrons that is far more extensive than previously understood.”
The report listed at least “38 destination vacations, including a previously unreported voyage on a yacht around the Bahamas; 26 private jet flights, plus an additional eight by helicopter; a dozen VIP passes to professional and college sporting events, typically perched in the skybox; two stays at luxury resorts in Florida and Jamaica; and one standing invitation to an uber-exclusive golf club overlooking the Atlantic coast.”
The largesse bestowed on Justice Thomas, which reportedly includes “several million dollars” in undisclosed trips since he joined the court in 1991, has provided him “a lifestyle far beyond what his income could provide.”
Democrats take issue in particular with the report that Mr. Crow, a wealthy Republican donor, gave Justice Thomas luxurious vacations, provided tuition support for a grandnephew he raised, and purchased low-dollar real estate from the justice’s family.
The letter stated that Justice Thomas has received “numerous undisclosed valuable gifts from Harlan Crow over the course of at least fifteen years, despite certifying repeatedly that his financial disclosure forms are ‘accurate, true, and complete,’ in certifications ‘subject to civil and criminal sanctions.’”
The lawmakers claim that the federal Ethics in Government Act requires judicial officers, including Supreme Court justices, “to file annual reports disclosing financial income, gifts and reimbursements, property interests, liabilities, and transactions, among other information.”
“Despite this clear mandate, Justice Thomas and his wife, Virginia ‘Ginni’ Thomas–a far right activist who often champions conservative causes that come before the Court–have received non-exempt gifts of significant value from Harlan Crow without reporting the source, description, and value of such gifts over the course of at least fifteen years.”
“No individual, regardless of their position or stature, should be exempt from legal scrutiny for lawbreaking,” the letter stated.
‘A Political Hit Job’
Mr. Crow, who is a major donor to Republicans, criticized a ProPublica report about Justice Thomas from April as a “political hit job.”
Justice Thomas said that month that he has “always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines.” He has also said he was advised in his early days on the Supreme Court that “personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable.”
Lawyers quoted in ProPublica reports say the Ethics in Government Act requires Supreme Court justices to declare gifts, but other legal experts aren’t so sure.
These legal experts have said that it isn’t illegal for justices to have wealthy, generous friends and that because the Supreme Court was created by the U.S. Constitution, not Congress, lawmakers don’t have a free hand in regulating it.
They’ve also said that Justice Thomas hasn’t participated in cases involving his benefactors and that there is therefore no judicial conflict of interest. Democrats, on the other hand, argue that Justice Thomas’s receipt of gifts is inappropriate for a judicial officer and is itself evidence that he is corrupt regardless of whether a specific quid pro quo exists.
‘Harassing and Intimidating’
The lawmakers’ letter came after the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee approved a Democrat-backed Supreme Court ethics reform bill on July 20 on a party line 11–10 vote. It isn’t clear when the full Senate will take up the bill.
Republicans oppose the legislation, which they say is unconstitutional. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), said at the time that the bill was “about harassing and intimidating the Supreme Court.”
The principal sponsor of the bill, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), said at the July 20 hearing that the legislation was needed because the court “has been captured by special interests, much like a railroad commission in the 1890s might have been captured by railroad barons to decide things their way.”
If the Democrat-controlled Senate approves the bill, it will face an uphill battle in the GOP-dominated House of Representatives.
Republicans have suggested that Democrats—many of whom want to pack the Supreme Court with liberal justices—want to move against the court only because its six-member conservative-leaning majority has been handing down decisions they find objectionable.
Three of those six justices were appointed by President Donald Trump.
Democrats have been demanding that the Supreme Court adopt a code of ethics after the revelation of several alleged ethical lapses said to have been committed by conservative members of the court, particularly Justice Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito.
The Epoch Times reached out to the DOJ and the Supreme Court’s public information office for comment but received none by press time.
The Supreme Court is in recess for the summer and is scheduled to release orders in ongoing cases on Aug. 21 and Sept. 8. Its new term will begin with oral arguments in October.