Senators Call on Chief Justice to Investigate Thomas’ Trips

April 11, 2023

A group of 11 Democratic Senators urged Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to investigate Justice Clarence Thomas’ undisclosed acceptance of a GOP donor’s luxury trips.

The Senators, all members of the Judiciary Committee, said Monday in a letter to Roberts that they plan to hold hearings in the coming days into the “need to restore confidence in the Supreme Court’s ethical standards.” They added that if the Supreme Court doesn’t act on the issue, the committee will consider voting on legislation to do so itself.

Such legislation would also need support from the Republican-controlled House to become law.

The trips, from billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow, were disclosed in an extensive investigative report released Thursday by ProPublica. According to the non-profit news outlet, the frequency of the gifts have “no known precedent in the modern history of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

According to ProPublica, it’s estimated that at least one trip taken by Thomas and his wife—to Indonesia in 2019—would have cost Thomas more than $500,000 had he chartered the reported private plane and yacht himself. 

On Friday, Thomas responded to the ProPublica report by saying he “was advised” that he did not have to disclose a series of trips reportedly paid for by Crow.

“But you do not need to wait for Congress to act to undertake your own investigation into the reported conduct and to ensure that it cannot happen again,” the Senators wrote to Roberts. “We urge you to do so.”

Chief Justice Roberts has in recent months been compelled to defend the legitimacy of the Supreme Court amid recent controversies—several involving Justice Thomas, whose wife, Ginni, is a political activist who was questioned by the House January 6 Select Committee last year about her actions surrounding the attempt to overturn the 2020 Presidential election.

“If the Court doesn’t retain its legitimate function of interpreting the Constitution, I’m not sure who would take up that mantle,” Roberts said during a September interview. “You don’t want the political branches telling you what the law is, and you don’t want public opinion to be the guide about what the appropriate decision is.”

As for public opinion of the Court, it sank to historic lows in the past year, with just 25% of those Americans  surveyed by Gallup saying they had confidence in the Supreme Court—down from 36% a year ago and down five percentage points from the previous low recorded in 2014.

In the Senators’ letter, they note that Roberts and the Court could have “resolved” the latest Thomas controversy more than a decade ago by adopting a code of ethics—something virtually every other court in the U.S. has other than the Supreme Court. 

“Instead,” the Senators wrote, “according to ProPublica’s reporting, Mr. Crow’s dispensation of favors escalated in secret during the years that followed. Now the Court faces a crisis of public confidence in its ethical standards that must be addressed.”

Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) called bolstered disclosure requirements a “modest step in the right direction,” should the Supreme Court take any. However, he added, action beyond that is also needed.

Read more exclusive news from Political IQ.

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