"Staggering levels of grift": Experts say Clarence Thomas trips expose SCOTUS corruption "crisis"

"In my career I don't remember ever seeing this degree of largesse given to anybody," ex-federal judge says

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published August 10, 2023 12:13PM (EDT)

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty Images)
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty Images)

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' acceptance of copious amounts of extravagant gifts and failure to disclose any of it, as reported by ProPublica Thursday, drew condemnation from legal experts and political pundits, further fueling the widespread distrust of the high court in the public eye, demands for the imposition of an ethics code on the court and calls for his removal from the bench.

Since ascending to the highest court, Thomas has received an expansive swath of luxury gifts and travel from wealthy, conservative benefactors including, at minimum, 38 destination vacations, among which is a previously unreported voyage on a yacht around the Bahamas; 26 flights on private jets and eight by helicopter; a dozen VIP passes to professional and college sporting events with seats in the skybox; two luxury resort stays in Florida and Jamaica; and one standing invitation to an especially exclusive golf club along the Atlantic coast.

"This accounting of Thomas' travel, revealed for the first time here from an array of previously unavailable information, is the fullest to date of the generosity that has regularly afforded Thomas a lifestyle far beyond what his income could provide," ProPublica reported. "And it is almost certainly an undercount."

The report comes after the outlet exposed earlier this year Texas real estate billionaire Harlan Crow's decades of generosity toward the justice, which included funding his vacations, flights on private jets, purchasing Thomas' mother's house and footing the bill for Thomas' great nephew's tuition payments for two years. Thomas defended his relationship with the magnate at the time, saying that the Crows "are among our dearest friends. As friends do, we have joined them on a number of family trips."

Some of the hospitality, such as stays in personal homes, Thomas received from the megadonors — Crow; a previously unreported oil baron, Paul "Tony" Novelly, and two others revealed by The New York Times to be former top Berkshire Hathaway executive David Sokol and H. Wayne Huizinga, the billionaire behind Blockbuster — may not have needed to be disclosed. However, Thomas appears to have violated the law in failing to disclose flights, cruises and pricey sports tickets from each of these men, who first met Thomas after he became a justice, ethics experts told ProPublica. 

More significant still is how Thomas' pattern of accepting lavish gifts reflects consistent violations of judicial norms, experts, which include seven current and former federal judges appointed by both political parties, told the outlet.

"In my career I don't remember ever seeing this degree of largesse given to anybody," Jeremy Fogel, a former federal judge who served on the judicial committee that reviews judges' financial disclosures, told the outlet. "I think it's unprecedented."

The total value of the undisclosed trips the benefactors, who — with the exception of Crow — did not appear anywhere in Thomas' financial disclosures, have given the justice since his appointment in 1991 is unclear. However, ProPublica has estimated the amount is most likely in the millions.

"It's just the height of hypocrisy to wear the robes and live the lifestyle of a billionaire," Don Fox, former general counsel of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, told the outlet. 

He added that taxpayers have the right to expect that justices of the Supreme Court are not funding their lives off others' money. Fox said he told every new political appointee that their wealthy friends are those they had before their appointment. "You don't get to acquire any new ones," he told them.

We need your help to stay independent

CNN legal analyst Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor, called out the "appearance of impropriety" from Thomas' failure to include these lavish gifts in any of his financial disclosures. 

"How does Clarence Thomas think the world actually works? We all have friends. Do any of your friends pay for your private vacations? It's unheard of," Honig said Thursday.

"The reason why this is a problem is this undermines public confidence. Rightly so. We all ask, I think logically, why on Earth are these guys spending millions of dollars, why is he accepting this, why isn't he reporting it? And when you see these polls that show that the American peoples' confidence is at an all-time low in the Supreme Court, I don't think it is because of the judicial outcomes they are delivering

"I think it's because we're now learning more than ever about all the money flowing through here and all the lack of disclosure and transparency," he added. 

Honig went on to decry the lack of oversight over the Supreme Court with the other panelists, noting the "condescending" response and declination from Chief Justice John Roberts when the Senate Judiciary Committee invited him to testify at a public hearing about Supreme Court ethics reform.  

"It was just this blow-off, and you wonder why people have no faith in them," Honig concluded. 

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Kyle Herrig, senior adviser at the left-leaning government watchdog group Accountable.US, alleged that Thomas' perception of "his position on our nation's highest court as a way to upgrade his own lifestyle via his billionaire benefactor social circle" in a statement released Thursday.

"It was his own decades-long improper financial relationship with Harlan Crow that sparked the Supreme Court corruption crisis in the first place — and that was just the tip of the iceberg," Herrig concluded. "Harlan Crow, Justice Thomas, Leonard Leo, and other key players in this Court corruption crisis may believe they exist above the law, but they don't. We need accountability and reform now."

Other legal and political experts further decried Thomas' luxury travel, with some calling for Thomas to step down or face impeachment.

"The imperiousness of Thomas is beyond the pale," tweeted NYU Law Professor Andrew Weissman, a former federal prosecutor.

"Any other federal employee with this extended pattern of misconduct would be fired, at a minimum," former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance added

"Just staggering levels of grift, corruption, and lawbreaking by a nominal public servant who wields tremendous power over all our lives. Clarence Thomas should resign, or be impeached," tweeted court accountability advocate and lawyer Alex Aronson, who served as the chief counsel to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

"I said it would get worse; it will keep getting worse. Omertà must stop; it becomes complicity," Whitehouse himself wrote, seemingly referencing a code of silence about criminal activity and refusal to cooperate with the authorities practiced by the Mafia.

Sherrilyn Ifill, former president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said Thomas' reported travel underscores a "crisis" on the Supreme Court and "we need to start treating it as such."

"Our profession, the Senate Judiciary Committee, newspaper editorial boards, & the Chief," she wrote, "will need to summon the courage needed to call for what, by now, should be the obvious next step."

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Tatyana Tandanpolie is a staff writer at Salon. Born and raised in central Ohio, she moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue degrees in Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. She is currently based in her home state and has previously written for local Columbus publications, including Columbus Monthly, CityScene Magazine and The Columbus Dispatch.

MORE FROM Tatyana Tandanpolie

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aggregate Clarence Thomas Harlan Crow John Roberts Politics Supreme Court