Legal ethics experts counter leftist media allegations against Justice Thomas regarding gifts disclosure

 April 11, 2023

Conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was targeted last week in a leftist media attack over alleged ethics violations that was joined by many elected Democrats, but has largely been cleared of any actual wrongdoing by ethics experts, Fox News reported.

One of those experts, in response to the allegations that Thomas had failed to properly disclose certain "gifts" received from a personal friend over the years, said dismissively, "This is politics. Plain and simple."

Allegations of impropriety against Justice Thomas

On April 6, left-leaning ProPublica issued a report that documented numerous vacations over the past two decades that Justice Thomas had taken with his friend Harlan Crow, a wealthy Texas real estate developer and Republican "megadonor" who has made sizeable political contributions to a variety of conservative causes and politicians and was quite generous in the "hospitality" he extended to his judicial friend.

Thomas is alleged to have failed to properly disclose those vacations with Crow, including trips on Crow's private jet and superyacht or stays at properties owned by him or his company, as "gifts" received under ethical guidelines for the federal judiciary.

The allegations prompted a number of elected Democrats in the House and Senate to demand that Congress impose stricter ethical guidelines on the Supreme Court while others called for Thomas to resign and a few, led by progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), even went so far as to insist that Thomas should be impeached and removed from the high bench.

A political hit job

Except, Fox News reported that Roger Severino of the Heritage Foundation, who previously oversaw ethics compliance as part of his role in the Trump administration as director of the Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights, "This is just grasping at straws by the left that is desperate to tear down Justice Thomas because he now has a working originalist majority on the court," and further stated, "This is politics. Plain and simple."

"There is no 'there' there because the justices have received gifts of hospitality from friends forever," he explained and highlighted some examples that included former Justice Stephen Breyer and late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the fact that justices have not been required to disclose things considered to be "personal hospitality" like dinners or vacations that are paid for by friends.

"There's nothing to see here because there's been no allegation whatsoever that accepting travel to a friend's property somehow influenced Justice Thomas's decision-making," Severino continued. "That's absurd. If you know anything about Justice Thomas, it's that he's not influenced by outside pressures one whit. He's guided by the law and the Constitution. Period."

Ethics disclosure requirements were only changed last month

The Washington Post reported on the allegations raised by ProPublica but also pointed out the exception for Supreme Court justices to disclosure requirements for "personal hospitality" that was in place forever until just last month when the policymaking Judicial Conference imposed revised rules that would narrow that exception somewhat and now require the disclosure of private jet travel and stays at corporate-owned properties.

The Post further reported that while some ethics experts seemed to agree with the allegations put forward by ProPublica, others did not, including New York University School of Law professor Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics expert, who said, "Justice Thomas could plausibly claim, and I think has claimed (as have others) that so long as an invitation itself came from a 'person,' not a corporation or business entity, it was 'personal hospitality' and he did not need to report it."

Gillers added that "this was not the only reading of the prior rule and some, including me, believe that the exemption from reporting applied only if the person extending the invitation was paying for it personally. That’s now the rule."

Thomas did not violate prior rules on ethics disclosure

Fox News reported that Severino also referenced the recent rules change by the Judicial Conference and said, "It actually further reinforces the fact that he'd been acting within the rules and according to the practice that has been understood for decades," and added, "Hospitality includes when somebody picks you up to take you to their house or to their property. That's what hospitality is. It just happened to be a friend that has made it in the world that's been quite successful, doesn't change the fact that he's a friend."

Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley also told Fox News that under the previous ethics guidelines, "even lower court judges were not required to report such trips under a personal hospitality exception," and that "Justice Thomas would not have been required to report the trips under the prior rule."

"Once again, the Democrats and the media appear to be engaging in the same hair-triggered responses to any story related to Thomas. This includes the clearly absurd call for an impeachment by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez," he added.

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