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Justice Thomas explains why he didn't report trips paid for by billionaire

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas during the formal group photograph at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 7, 2022.
Eric Lee
/
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas during the formal group photograph at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 7, 2022.

Updated April 7, 2023 at 7:38 PM ET

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has responded to a news report about his failure to disclose trips paid for by a conservative billionaire, saying he "was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from a close personal friend, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable."

"I have endeavored to follow that counsel throughout my tenure, and have always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines," he said in a statement.

These are just a few highlights of the ProPublica report:

-- In June 2019, Thomas and his wife, Ginni, flew on Crow's private jet to Indonesia for nine days of island-hopping on the billionaire's yacht. That sort of trip would have cost him more than half a million dollars if he had paid for it himself.

-- Every summer, Thomas has now acknowledged, he spends about a week at Camp Topridge, Crow's private resort in the Adirondacks. There he hobnobs not just with Crow and his wife, but Crow's other friends, big corporate leaders, and conservative activists and influencers.

-- the ProPublica report used Federal Aviation Administration records to show that Thomas repeatedly has flown on Crow's private jet for other occasions, for instance, to speak at the unveiling in New York of a huge statue of the justice's beloved eighth grade teacher. There he publicly thanked the donors who paid for the statue, Harlan Crow and his wife, Kathy.

Stephen Gillers, author of perhaps the leading judicial ethics textbook, said that Thomas' failure to disclose all this is "arguably legal, the key word being arguably." The code of judicial ethics that applies to all federal judges has rules that require reporting of all gifts and travel paid for by others, but until last month, those rules had an exception for private travel and hospitality paid for by a personal friend who had no cases currently pending before the court. That appears to be the provision that Thomas believes has allowed him to avoid disclosure of his privately financed travel.

In March the Judicial Conference of the United States changed those rules to clarify that judges may not escape reporting travel that is paid for by someone else, and that even personal hospitality at a private estate must be reported if the property is not owned personally by the friend extending the hospitality.

That said, as NYU's professor Gillers, observes, Thomas' privately financed travel by close friends is, as far as anyone knows, "outside the norm." The watchdog group, Fix the Court, has reported on a handful of trips other justices have taken, mainly to universities to speak, where the transportation was not reported, but those seem mainly to have been oversights, whereas Thomas seems to believe that he had no responsibility to report the trips disclosed by ProPublica.

As for Crow, he told ProPublica that as far as he knows, neither he nor any of his other guests have had cases before the court or discussed matters before the court when Thomas was with them.

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

Washington Desk
Nina Totenberg
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.

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