The US Supreme Court is quietly watching. Not a word about the allegation that Minister Clarence Thomas took luxury trips around the world for more than two decades, backed by a Republican billionaire, without ever including such gifts in his financial statements – despite the enormous repercussion of the case.
The accusation was made on Thursday (6/4) by ProPublica, a non-profit news agency that investigates abuses of power. The following day, the minister defended himself in a statement to the press. Basically, he said he followed the advice of colleagues when he arrived at court and promised to declare such gifts in the future, given new guidelines passed last month.
One of the highlights of the prosecution was a nine-day trip that Thomas and his wife, Virginia, took to Indonesia in 2019 — like all the others, at the expense of “real estate mogul” Harlan Crow. The couple traveled by private jet, a Bombardier Global 5000, and toured a volcanic archipelago on a 162-foot (almost 50 meters) yacht, with on-board service and a private chef — both from Crow.
If Thomas had to pay for this perk, the total cost would exceed $500,000—not including housing, according to ProPublica. By comparison, the salary of a Supreme Court justice is $285,000 a year. That is, this trip alone would cost almost twice the magistrate’s annual salary.
For more than two decades, Thomas has vacationed nearly every year at another Crow property, Camp Topridge, a resort in the Adirondacks of upstate New York.
The house on the 105-acre property has, among other amenities, a man-made waterfall and a grand foyer with a Thomas and Crow painting. The lowest rate for a nearby hotel is $2,250. The region attracts billionaires from all over the world.
Thomas also frequents Crow’s sprawling Texas ranch and has traveled with him to Bohemian Grove, an exclusive, men-only getaway in California.
The rules under discussion
The amount and frequency of gifts received by Thomas is unprecedented in modern Supreme Court history, says ProPublica.
The minister’s failure to report them in his financial statements may be a violation of a law passed after Watergate, which requires ministers, judges, members of Congress and federal officials to disclose most of the gifts received.
Representatives, for example, are generally prohibited from receiving gifts worth more than $50 unless they obtain pre-approval from the House Ethics Committee.
Federal judges occupy a unique position in public trust. They have a lifetime mandate, a privilege granted to insulate them from pressure and possible political corruption, according to ProPublica. The code of conduct for first and second degree judges requires them to avoid even the “appearance of impropriety”.
In his note, Justice Clarence Thomas stated: “When I arrived at the court, my colleagues and other members of the Judiciary explained to me that this kind of personal hospitality, at the invitation of close personal friends who do not have cases pending before the Supreme Court, need not be declared. I have always sought to comply with financial disclosure guidelines.”
Justices of the Supreme Court must make financial disclosures annually. Last month, the Judicial Conference committee (the policy-making body for the federal judiciary) adopted new, stricter requirements for disclosure of gifts received by judges.
The new rule clarified that “personal hospitality” does not apply to gifts related to commercial property. It only applies to certain gifts from someone who has a personal relationship with the minister, in a context that does not involve his occupation.
“In light of the rule change last month, it is my intention to follow these guidelines in the future,” Thomas said in his note.
The ban on hospitality on commercial property is an issue for Thomas’ travels to Crow-owned Camp Topridge. It is therefore a “commercial property”.
Crow also released a statement, saying that he and his wife “never attempted to influence the minister in any case before the court. And he was not aware that any other of his guests had sought to influence the Minister in any proceedings. It was always a gathering of friends.”
The Billionaire’s Mission
Crow may not try to influence the minister in cases going through the courts, although, from time to time, the Supreme Court decides cases of interest to the real estate sector.
The mission to which the billionaire fervently dedicates himself is broader: supporting ideological efforts to shape the law and the judiciary, supporting conservative causes, empowering the right (he would dread Marxism), and aiding Republican Party and conservative politics. pro-business.
The “buddy get-togethers” have always included corporate executives, political activists and major donors to the Republican Party. In the painting hanging at Camp Topridge, where Thomas and Crow smoke cigars, there is also Leonard Leo, leader of the Federalist Society and considered the architect of the Supreme Court’s definitive shift to the right during the Trump administration.
Regarded as a Republican “mega donor,” in recent years he has donated more than $10 million in publicly disclosed contributions to the party. And he also earmarked millions of dollars for organizations that keep the names of donors secret and handle a kind of slush fund. “I don’t divulge what I’m not obligated to divulge,” he once told the Times.
Crow also donated half a million dollars to an organization affiliated with the ultraconservative group Tea Party, founded by the minister’s wife, Ginny Thomas. And he paid her a salary of $120,000.
Repercussion of the complaint
The ProPublica complaint had a huge backlash in the US legal community, especially among judges, and among Democratic Party politicians. Republican politicians defended Thomas or chose not to speak out.
Democratic politicians have suggested that Thomas should resign or be impeached, which will not happen because the majority of the House of Representatives is Republican. And the minister certainly does not intend to resign, according to his statement to the press.
However, a bill that proposes to force the Supreme Court to adopt a strict code of ethics, which is already moving through Congress, could gain some traction.
Some judges and lawyers criticized the minister. Among them, retired judge Nancy Gertner, who told ProPublica: “It is incomprehensible that a judge would do such a thing. When I was on the job, I wouldn’t even mention my job title when trying to make a reservation at a restaurant. It’s a matter of not wanting to use your position for anything other than part of your job.”
Former government ethics attorney Virginia Canter, who has served in both-party administrations, told the publication that Thomas appears to have flouted his high ethical obligations. “When a minister’s lifestyle is subsidized by the rich and famous, it definitely erodes public confidence.”
Originally posted on Conjur
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