April 6, 2023

Whitehouse Calls for Investigation Into Justice Thomas’s Extravagant Billionaire-Funded Travel

Senate’s lead voice for improving transparency and accountability at the Court calls for hearing and vote on bill to address major ethical lapses by justices. Whitehouse’s SCERT Act would require SCOTUS to adopt stricter disclosure rules, and enact a process for investigating misconduct at the Court

Washington, DC – Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Courts Subcommittee, today called on the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to launch an ethics investigation into Justice Clarence Thomas’s extensive billionaire-funded luxury travel habits and other outstanding allegations of misconduct by Justice Thomas.  The Senator’s call comes after a bombshell report published by ProPublica exposing that Justice Thomas and his wife accepted extravagant vacations worth as much as $500,000 on the dime of Republican megadonor Harlan Crow.

Whitehouse has long been the Senate’s leading voice for improving transparency and accountability at the Supreme Court, delivering a series of speeches on the Senate floor about the special interest scheme to capture the judicial branch. 

“This Supreme Court has lost its ethical compass.  It’s no wonder that the American people are losing faith in the idea that they can get a fair shake before the nation’s highest court when they see a Supreme Court justice openly flouting basic disclosure rules in order to pal around with billionaires in secret,” said Whitehouse.

In February, Whitehouse reintroduced the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency (SCERT) Act, comprehensive legislation that would create a much-needed process for investigating misconduct at the Supreme Court, strengthen recusal standards for judges and disclosure rules for special interests trying to influence the courts, improve disclosure of gifts and travel for judges, and mandate the creation of a binding code of ethics.  The SCERT Act would require the Supreme Court to adopt disclosure rules for gifts, travel, and income that are at least as rigorous as ethics rules for members of Congress.  The legislation has 15 Senate sponsors.

“The Supreme Court urgently needs an enforceable system for holding justices accountable for ethical transgressions.  We need a hearing and a vote on my SCERT Act to clean up this mess and to wall the justices off from the billionaires who are apparently swarming around the bench.  In the meantime, the burden is on Justice Thomas to explain multiple apparent violations of ethics and reporting rules, which must be part of a properly thorough and transparent investigation.  Chief Justice Roberts should start that investigation immediately,” added Whitehouse.

Late last month, after Whitehouse attended a meeting of the Judicial Conference, the Judicial Conference released updated financial disclosure rules that resolved key ambiguities related to the personal hospitality exemption addressed in the SCERT Act—the very exemption Justice Thomas and others appear to have exploited.  By mandating that the Supreme Court’s disclosure rules be at least as transparent as Congress’s, Whitehouse’s SCERT Act would ensure that Supreme Court rules require full disclosure of gifts and travel, even if the Judicial Conference were to adopt a less stringent policy in the future.  The SCERT Act would also strengthen recusal requirements when parties who have provided gifts to justices appear before the Court, and require parties to disclose those gifts to the Court.

Whitehouse also led a letter earlier this month requesting the addition of language mandating enforceable, transparent ethics rules for justices of the Supreme Court in the FY2024 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill.  Congress has the authority to compel the Supreme Court to institute such reforms, joining other requirements already legislatively mandated by Congress. 

Late last year, Whitehouse and Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA) engaged in a series of correspondence with the Supreme Court regarding an outside influence campaign – known as Operation Higher Court – exposed by reporting in Politico and the New York Times.  A right-wing religious group, Faith and Action, targeted Republican-appointed justices with lavish gifts from wealthy donors, and allegedly gained advanced knowledge of the Court’s decision in a key case.  Whitehouse and Johnson pressed Chief Justice John Roberts and the Supreme Court’s legal counsel about the lack of adequate ethical and legal standards at the Court, and asked if the Court had reevaluated any of its procedures related to judicial ethics in light of the reporting. 

Last spring, Whitehouse and Johnson wrote to Chief Justice Roberts requesting that he ensure that Justice Clarence Thomas recuse himself from cases involving his wife’s activities related to the 2020 election and the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.  Thomas has refused to recuse himself, or acknowledge the possible conflict of interest, in multiple cases.  The Chief Justice has taken no known action on this matter to date

Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921

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Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921