The South Dakota Supreme Court may be impervious to purchase, but what about the United States Supreme Court? ProPublica, which just won again against billionaire T. Denny Sanford in court in South Dakota, spent yesterday alerting the public to billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow’s luxurious treatment of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas:
In late June 2019, right after the U.S. Supreme Court released its final opinion of the term, Justice Clarence Thomas boarded a large private jet headed to Indonesia. He and his wife were going on vacation: nine days of island-hopping in a volcanic archipelago on a superyacht staffed by a coterie of attendants and a private chef.
If Thomas had chartered the plane and the 162-foot yacht himself, the total cost of the trip could have exceeded $500,000.
Fortunately for him, that wasn’t necessary: He was on vacation with real estate magnate and Republican megadonor Harlan Crow, who owned the jet — and the yacht, too.
For more than two decades, Thomas has accepted luxury trips virtually every year from the Dallas businessman without disclosing them, documents and interviews show. A public servant who has a salary of $285,000, he has vacationed on Crow’s superyacht around the globe. He flies on Crow’s Bombardier Global 5000 jet. He has gone with Crow to the Bohemian Grove, the exclusive California all-male retreat, and to Crow’s sprawling ranch in East Texas. And Thomas typically spends about a week every summer at Crow’s private resort in the Adirondacks.
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 [Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, and Alex Mierjeski, “Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire,” ProPublica, 2023.04.06].
ProPublica notes that such luxury vacations don’t fit Justice Thomas’s effort to portray himself in a documentary financed by Crow as a regular guy who’d park his RV at Walmart:
2/ Thomas has publicly presented himself as an everyman with modest tastes.
“I don’t have any problem with going to Europe, but I prefer the United States, and I prefer seeing the regular parts of the United States,” Thomas said in a recent interview for a documentary about his life, which Crow helped finance.
“I prefer the RV parks. I prefer the Walmart parking lots to the beaches and things like that. There’s something normal to me about it,” Thomas said. “I come from regular stock, and I prefer that — I prefer being around that” [Kaplan, Elliott, and Mierjeski, 2023.04.06].
Thomas’s failure to disclose Crow’s lavish gifts pose ethical and legal problems:
Thomas didn’t report any of the trips ProPublica identified on his annual financial disclosures. Ethics experts said the law clearly requires disclosure for private jet flights and Thomas appears to have violated it.
Justices are generally required to publicly report all gifts worth more than $415, defined as “anything of value” that isn’t fully reimbursed. There are exceptions: If someone hosts a justice at their own property, free food and lodging don’t have to be disclosed. That would exempt dinner at a friend’s house. The exemption never applied to transportation, such as private jet flights, experts said, a fact that was made explicit in recently updated filing instructions for the judiciary.
Two ethics law experts told ProPublica that Thomas’ yacht cruises, a form of transportation, also required disclosure.
“If Justice Thomas received free travel on private planes and yachts, failure to report the gifts is a violation of the disclosure law,” said Kedric Payne, senior director for ethics at the nonprofit government watchdog Campaign Legal Center. (Thomas himself once reported receiving a private jet trip from Crow, on his disclosure for 1997.)
The experts said Thomas’ stays at Topridge may have required disclosure too, in part because Crow owns it not personally but through a company. Until recently, the judiciary’s ethics guidance didn’t explicitly address the ownership issue. The recent update to the filing instructions clarifies that disclosure is required for such stays [Kaplan, Elliott, and Mierjeski, 2023.04.06].
Gee, maybe someone ought to take Justice Thomas to court….