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Senators seek answers as Clarence Thomas’ ethics mess intensifies

As Justice Clarence Thomas' ethics mess grows more serious, the questions on Capitol Hill are growing louder. Will senators get answers or not?


By most measures, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is the most controversial jurist of his generation. Even before joining the high court, the conservative faced scandalous allegations during his confirmation hearings.

After Thomas was confirmed anyway, the controversies multiplied. As we discussed a few weeks ago, he has, for example, faced awkward questions about incomplete financial disclosure forms. And his appearances at wealthy conservatives’ political retreats. And his politically provocative speeches. And his wife’s activism/lobbying on matters before the court.

But a recent ProPublica report has pushed the ethics questions surrounding Thomas to a new level: The far-right jurist has spent the last couple of decades accepting gifts and luxury trips from a Republican megadonor, Harlan Crow, which Thomas failed to disclose.

Thomas soon after tried to explain away the mess, though his response was amazingly unpersuasive. Similarly, his Republican allies have tried to mount an underwhelming defense, based on talking points that immediately collapsed. (My personal favorite was Donald Trump’s recent insistence that the justice is “under siege” for “doing nothing.”)

Making matters worse, related revelations soon after came to the fore. ProPublica ran a second report two weeks ago, noting that Crow bought property from Thomas, which the justice also failed to disclose. A few days later, The Washington Post published a report of its own, noting that the justice has spent years misstating rental income from a real estate firm that no longer exists.

The questions on Capitol Hill are growing louder. NBC News reported yesterday:

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden on Monday asked conservative billionaire Harlan Crow to provide a full account of extravagant undisclosed trips, gifts and payments he has made to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas over the years. In a letter to Crow, Wyden, D-Ore., requested a complete inventory of Crow’s gifts to Thomas over the years, along with evidence that Crow had complied with federal tax law.

“I write seeking information related to reports of undisclosed gifts and payments for the personal benefit of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, including private real estate transactions and the complimentary use of your private jet and superyacht,” the Oregon Democrat wrote. “This unprecedented arrangement between a wealthy benefactor and a Supreme Court justice raises serious concerns related to federal tax and ethics laws.”

The NBC News report added that Wyden’s letter asked for answers by May 8.

For his part, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin clearly recognizes the seriousness of the controversy surrounding Thomas, though the Illinois Democrat isn’t pressing the justice for answers directly, assuming that the far-right justice would be unresponsive.

Durbin has instead invited Chief Justice Roberts to testify in early May about judicial ethics rules and potential reforms. To date, Roberts has not formally responded to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. Watch this space.