Justice Thomas Says He Was Advised Lavish Gifts Didn’t Need to Be Reported
In a statement released by the Supreme Court, the justice said he had followed past guidance from others at the court and believed he was not required to report the trips.
WASHINGTON — Justice Clarence Thomas said on Friday that he had followed the advice of “colleagues and others in the judiciary” when he did not disclose lavish gifts and travel from a wealthy conservative donor.
In a statement released by the Supreme Court, the justice said that he had followed guidance from others at the court and that he believed he was not required to report the trips.
“Early in my tenure at the court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the court, was not reportable,” Justice Thomas said. “I have endeavored to follow that counsel throughout my tenure, and have always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines.”
ProPublica revealed on Thursday that the justice had traveled by private jet and yacht at the invitation of Harlan Crow, a real estate billionaire. The vacations, which took place over nearly two decades, included trips to Indonesia and to Bohemian Grove, an exclusive retreat nestled in the redwoods in Northern California.
Justice Thomas said in his statement that he would comply with new guidelines adopted by the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policymaking body for the federal courts. The rules, adopted last month, require the justices to disclose travel by private jet and stays in commercial properties like resorts.
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The vacations are at odds with the justice’s public portrayal of himself as a man of the people.
“I prefer the R.V. parks. I prefer the Walmart parking lots to the beaches and things like that. There’s something normal to me about it,” Justice Thomas said in a documentary about his life. “I come from regular stock, and I prefer that — I prefer being around that.”
Justice Thomas also pushed back against any notion of conflict of interest between his position on the court and his friendship with Mr. Crow.
“Harlan and Kathy Crow are among our dearest friends, and we have been friends for over 25 years,” he said. “As friends do, we have joined them on a number of family trips during the more than quarter-century we have known them.”
Some advocates for increased court transparency said they hoped the revelations would put a renewed focus on an ethics code for justices.
Without a formal ethics code and an ethics office within the court, the justices are left to police themselves, leading to different interpretations of what they must tell the public, said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, which is critical of the court’s transparency.
“There’s just a lot of different justices who have different practices and have different levels of reporting,” Mr. Roth said, who added that he believed a clear disciplinary policy should be in place as well.
Concerns that Justice Thomas had accepted improper gifts and travel date back decades. In 2004, The Los Angeles Times detailed the tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts the justice received since joining the court. They include a Bible once owned by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass that was estimated to be worth $19,000 and a bust of President Abraham Lincoln worth $15,000.
The article, describing Justice Thomas’s friendship with Mr. Crow, cited a 1997 trip in which the justice flew on Mr. Crow’s personal plane to Northern California to stay as a guest at Bohemian Grove. The Bible that once belonged to Mr. Douglass was a gift from Mr. Crow and his wife.
John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who clerked for Justice Thomas and served in President George W. Bush’s administration, said he did not believe that vacations or gifts would play any role in the decisions he issued. The criticism of the justice’s ties to Mr. Crow, he added, reflected a broader campaign.
“This is part of this attack on him that goes back to ever since he joined the court,” Mr. Yoo said. “That somehow he couldn’t hold these views from his own free thoughts.”