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Did Clarence Thomas flout ethics rules?

Rep. Louise Slaughter has asked Chief Justice John Roberts to reprimand Justice Thomas for an alleged ethics violation.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is on stage at the Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh, April 9, 2013.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is on stage at the Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh, April 9, 2013.

A top House Democrat is going after one of the Supreme Court's most conservative justices and trying to enlist the Chief Justice in her cause.

On Wednesday, New York Rep. Louise Slaughter wrote to Chief Justice John Roberts asking that he formally reprimand his colleague Justice Clarence Thomas for participating in the conservative Federalist Society's annual fundraiser. Thomas' appearance at the event, writes Slaughter, is a "clear violation of the ethical standards embodied in the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges."

Her letter was co-signed by representatives from two progressive advocacy groups: Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, and Arn H. Pearson, vice president for policy and litigation for Common Cause.

Canon 4(c) of the Code of Conduct forbids judges from personally participating in fundraising events. Although it is not legally binding upon Supreme Court justices, Roberts has previously written that it provides "a current and uniform source of guidance" for the members of the Court.

“Justice Thomas is among several members of the high court who’ve made a habit of flouting judicial ethics by headlining Federalist Society fundraisers,” said Pearson in a statement. “He gets away with it because the Court has exempted itself from the Code, but that doesn’t make it right."

A formal reprimand for Thomas could be unprecedented, says Stanford Law Professor Deborah L. Rhode, the founding president of the International Association of Legal Ethics. But that doesn't mean it would be unjustified.

"Without knowing the underlying facts, it's hard for me to comment on that, but I do think the conduct, if true, raises a serious issue that needs to be addressed in some official way," Rhode told msnbc.

The consequences could go beyond an embarrassing incident for Thomas. Slaughter, Aron and Pearson are also requesting that Thomas adopt an official code of conduct which includes the five canons of the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges.

“The guidelines contained in the Code exist to ensure the public has faith that judicial decision-making is based on the facts and the law, not politics and outside interests. Congress must act to ensure the Supreme Court plays by the same ethical rules as all other federal judges," said Slaughter in a statement.

Slaughter also targeted another participant in the Federalist Society fundraiser: Judge Diane Sykes, a member of the federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, who is legally bound by the Code of Conduct. Slaughter, Pearson and Aron filed a formal complaint with the Judicial Council of the Seventh Circuit, asking that Sykes be investigated.

If Sykes were found to have violated the code, "she could certainly be reprimanded," said Rhode. However, "I would doubt that a violation of this sort would result in a removal from office."

This is not the first time that Thomas' behavior as a justice has come under ethical scrutiny. He and his colleague Antonin Scalia have attended the annual Federalist Society fundraiser before, and Slaughter once asked her Republican colleagues to look into Thomas' alleged ethical violations regarding financial disclosure.