Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has called for an investigation into Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ alleged failure to report gifts from a billionaire benefactor. Whitehouse has called on the body overseeing the federal judiciary, the Judicial Conference, to refer Thomas to the Department of Justice for investigation. The call comes after reports that Thomas failed to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from billionaire Harlan Crow, including multiple luxury vacations on Crow’s superyacht and regular use of his private jet.
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ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization, uncovered the gifts and reported that Thomas did not disclose them in his mandated annual personal financial reports. The gifts were also not disclosed in the sale of Thomas’ ancestral home in Georgia to Crow, which was reportedly sold at an inflated price. Thomas had listed his interest in the home on his financial reports in the past but did not disclose the sale to Crow as required by law.
Supreme Court justices are required to disclose certain gifts and sales under federal ethics laws. Thomas claims that he believed that he was not required to disclose the travel, lodging, and food provided by Crow. In March, the Judicial Conference updated its disclosure guidelines to clarify that justices must report gifts of lodging and hospitality not provided at a personal residence owned directly by the gift-giving individual and private travel to such locations.
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The financial disclosure law that Thomas is alleged to have violated states that justices must “knowingly and willfully” fail to report gifts that should have been disclosed. Such a violation may result in fines up to $50,000, or, if the violator falsifies a report, not more than one year in prison.
Whitehouse’s call for an investigation into Thomas follows a similar letter to the Judicial Conference sent by the ethics watchdog group Campaign Legal Center. The group noted that Thomas previously disclosed similar gifts of travel from Crow but stopped disclosing them after the Los Angeles Times reported on his relationship with the billionaire in 2004. This sudden change in disclosure “demonstrated knowledge of the requirement” that he disclose such gifts, a precondition for guilt under the ethics law.
The CLC letter also notes that Thomas has a long history of failing to disclose gifts and income. In 2011, Thomas amended 20 years of his financial reports to account for his failure to disclose his wife’s income at various conservative political and educational institutions despite previously properly disclosing such income.
It has been 54 years since the Justice Department opened an investigation into a sitting Supreme Court justice. In 1969, the Justice Department opened an investigation into Justice Abe Fortas, who received a $20,000 annual retainer from the family foundation of financier Louis Wolfson. Wolfson had been convicted of illegal stock trading and appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court. The payments to Fortas created an appearance of corruption, and the ethics law that Thomas is alleged to have broken was extended to cover judges following the revelations of payments to Fortas and other justices.
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The campaign against Fortas was the beginning of the conservative push to take over the Supreme Court. It provided Nixon with two open court seats, first the Chief Justice seat being vacated by Warren and then Fortas’. Nixon appointed Warren Burger to replace Warren while attempting to fill Fortas’ seat with a Southern conservative segregationist in order to fulfill a campaign promise to Strom Thurmond, but the Democratic Senate blocked him twice.
This episode launched the judicial wars that culminated in the conservative triumph after President Donald Trump replaced the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg with the conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett. The shift in the court to the right elevated Thomas from the margins to the center of a court bloc aimed at rolling back the 20th-century decisions pronounced by the likes of liberals like Fortas. But now
The recent controversy involving Justice Thomas has raised concerns about the ethical conduct of members of the Supreme Court, as well as the efficacy of the rules governing their financial disclosure. The failure to properly disclose gifts and other financial interests can create conflicts of interest and undermine public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary.
Moreover, the fact that the Judicial Conference has updated its guidelines and clarified reporting requirements underscores the need for increased transparency and accountability on the part of Supreme Court justices. As the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court has an outsized impact on American society, and its decisions have far-reaching consequences.
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The potential investigation into Justice Thomas highlights the importance of adhering to ethical standards and complying with reporting requirements. It also underscores the need for greater scrutiny of the financial relationships between justices and individuals or organizations with a stake in the court’s decisions.
As the debate over court reform continues, the controversy surrounding Justice Thomas may fuel calls for greater oversight and regulation of the Supreme Court. While the court has historically resisted such efforts, the recent revelations about Justice Thomas may prompt a renewed push for reform, particularly in light of the growing partisan polarization of American politics.
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Ultimately, the fate of Justice Thomas and the future of the Supreme Court will depend on the outcome of any investigation and the public’s response to the revelations of his failure to disclose gifts and other financial interests. The controversy may also serve as a reminder of the importance of upholding the highest ethical standards in all branches of government and maintaining the trust of the American people.