True North Research Calls for an Enforceable Code of Conduct for the U.S. Supreme Court
Undisclosed Luxury Gifts from Billionaire Harlan Crow to Justice Clarence Thomas Underscore Need for Reform
Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on the need for major ethics reforms for the U.S. Supreme Court, so True North Research is renewing its call for an enforceable code of conduct for the Court.
To be effective, such a code would provide punishment for failure to disclose gifts of luxury travel or vacations, the names of the buyers of real estate, the identities of clients of the spouses of Supreme Court justices, and the full value of teaching positions. It would also require disclosure of the identity of anyone advising justices on what to disclose. The public also deserves to know this information retrospectively, over the past five or ten years at least.
We are also publishing an update on some of our recent research around these issues.
Last year, True North Research conducted a deep dive into a self-narrated “documentary” on Justice Clarence Thomas that was underwritten by incredibly wealthy figures such as Harlan Crow, Charles Koch, Diana Davis Spencer, Thomas Klingenstein and others. [It was during that research that a co-author of this post, Ansev Demirhan, found the now famous photo of the painting of Crow with Thomas, Leonard Leo, Mark Paoletta, and Bo Rutledge. In its blockbuster investigation ProPublica found that this painting hangs in Crow’s Topridge resort-style home in the Adirondacks. The painter entitled the piece “Just 5 Guys Discussing the Law.”]
That Thomas vanity project was promoted as the center of a $1.5 million ad buy opposing Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Court by the Leonard Leo-tied Judicial Crisis Network. We consider that free publicity for Thomas, on the eve of the publication of an investigation into his wife’s role in repeatedly urging Trump’s Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, to stop Joe Biden from being certified as President of the United States, another gift to benefit Thomas. The financial underwriter of that seven-figure ad buy is not known.
What is known is that in the biopic for the ad Thomas made the laughable claim: “I prefer the RV parks. I prefer the Walmart parking lots to the beaches and things like that. There’s something normal to me about it…I come from regular stock, and I prefer that — I prefer being around that.”
That is, in a documentary underwritten in part by the billionaire who has been flying Thomas around in his private jet and yacht to beaches and other posh locations for years now, the Supreme Court justice claimed he prefers the Walmart parking lot to beaches. What spin!
His claim is rendered even more absurd by the investigation conducted by ProPublica’s Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliot, and Alex Mierjeski, which exposes a stunning list of undisclosed luxury gifts of travel from billionaire GOP donor Harlan Crow to Thomas.
The Judiciary Committee’s meeting this week was spurred by that investigation and is focused on discussing Supreme Court ethics reforms in light of those revelations and other investigations that highlight a lack of transparency by the far-right justice in his dealings with GOP mega-donor Crow, and other scandals.
In addition to helping to finance Thomas’ documentary and taking both Clarence and Ginni Thomas on all-expense paid vacations around the world, there are numerous other financial ties between Thomas and the Nazi memorabilia collector over the years:
In 2001, Crow donated $175K for a new Clarence Thomas Wing at the Justice’s library in Pin Point Georgia. That same year Crow and his wife Kathy gifted a Bible once owned by Frederick Douglass and a bust of President Lincoln, valued at $19K and $15K, respectively.
In 2008, Crow purchased land for $1.5M in Georgia to build a museum “commemorating the community that raised Clarence Thomas.”
In 2009, Crow gave at least $500K to Ginni Thomas’ group Liberty Central, which attacked the Affordable Care Act, a law her husband later ruled against.
In 2014, one of Crow’s companies purchased and renovated Thomas’ mother’s home, as well as other lots on the street. Thomas’ mother continues to reside in the home and does not pay rent.
In 2018 Crow’s foundation gave $105K to Yale Law School, Thomas’ alma mater, for the “Justice Thomas Portrait Fund.”
In 2021, Crow chartered a plane and traveled with Thomas to a suburb outside of NYC for the unveiling of a statue of Thomas’ junior high teacher. In his speech, Thomas thanked the Crows for paying for the statue.
As the Washington Post noted, Thomas has also continued to report income from a company that became defunct in 2006, raising additional questions about how seriously Thomas views his obligation to accurately report his finances to the public. It also raises this question: are the financial figures he provided accurate if no one noted the name change for 17 years?
These are just the financial links with a paper trail. Leaked documents from Henley and Partners (a London-based firm that assists the uber-rich in obtaining passports to countries that allow holders to shield assets from tax authorities) revealed that Crow has citizenship in St. Kitts and Nevis– “a known tax haven for impenetrable financial secrecy, through a cash-for-citizenship scheme.”
In our view, Justice Thomas should detail under oath and under penalty of perjury the value of each and every luxury trip Crow has given him and the value of each gift of tribute to Thomas.
Thomas’ failure to comply with disclosure requirements–and the lack of a suitable response by the Supreme Court–is just one result of Chief Justice John Roberts’ failures to protect the integrity of the Court.
Lisa Graves’ 2021 testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee about the relationship between Crow and Thomas, highlighted numerous concerns about the Court, which raise serious questions about its integrity and fairness.
Here is a reprise of some of the problems:
Justices may refuse to recuse themselves from cases in defiance of conflicts of interest review by other Justices as previously demonstrated by Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Similarly, Clarence Thomas refused to recuse himself from cases that have to do with the seditious events surrounding Jan. 6th, despite Ginni Thomas’ involvement in the failed coup. Thomas also failed to recuse himself when the Court reviewed a case involving one of Crow’s businesses.
The Court has refused to require litigants to disclose the major funders of groups filing amicus briefs to the Court. Senator Whitehouse has documented how the judicial dark money network has created a flotilla of amicus briefs that create a distorted image that there is greater support for far-right rulings than actually exists.
Justices have neglected to disclose lucrative gifts of travel and access to entertainment and special interest events provided by “friends'' and groups with substantive and ideological stakes in litigation. (Graves specifically highlighted the relationship between Crow and the Thomases, as previously reported by Mike McIntire in the New York Times and David Savage of the Los Angeles Times. McIntire’s story included this quote: “‘The code of conduct is quite clear that judges are not supposed to be soliciting money for their pet projects or charities, period,’ said Arn Pearson, a lawyer with Common Cause. ‘If any other federal judge was doing it, he could face disciplinary action.’”)
There is a real lack of transparency about the true income sources of Supreme Court Justice’s spouses, such as Ginni Thomas; their clients or funders are not disclosed, just the entity receiving the funds to pay them. That list now includes Barrett’s spouse and Roberts’ too.
The underwriters of educational opportunities for Supreme Court justices, such as those provided by George Mason’s law school, which is underwritten by oil billionaire Charles Koch and presumably by Leo’s big benefactor, the industrialist Barre Seid, are also not adequately disclosed. The current voluntary disclosure process for judicial seminars for federal judges is also neither fully enforced nor reasonably accessible to the public.
In our view, an enforceable Code of Conduct for the Supreme Court addressing each of the above concerns is necessary to restore public confidence in the Court’s integrity and impartiality. The highest court in the nation should follow the highest of ethical standards, beyond reproach. Even the mere perception of bias and unethical behavior is extremely damaging to the court and confidence in justice.
Most Americans want real transparency from the Court. A YouGov/The Economist poll conducted after the report on Thomas was released found that nearly three-quarters of Americans support requiring justices to disclose gifts and 69% were in favor of the Supreme Court adopting a formal code of ethics.
Until an ethics reform occurs, some of the judges on the Court may continue to abandon the plain language of the law when it comes to their own personal activities, despite identifying themselves as “textualists.” That’s an invented term suggesting strict adherence to the plain rule of law. The failure of justices to fully follow disclosure standards and the refusal of Chief Justice Roberts to enforce said standards undermines the legitimacy of the Court and its rulings.
It is also worth underscoring that the Court’s right-wing faction was put in place by a massive dark money network coordinated by far-right lawyer and co-chairman of the board of directors for the Federalist Society, Leonard Leo. Robert O’Harrow and Shawn Boberg of the Washington Post detailed in 2019 that Leo had raised at least $250 million, even before the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, to try to capture the Court and change our legal policies. As of 2020, Leo’s court-capture network had raised nearly $600 million to influence who became a justice or judge and to sway the law in other ways.
Then, in 2020, Seid secretly made the largest political advocacy donation in history to Leo, transferring assets worth $1.6 billion via a nonprofit dubbed Marble Freedom Trust. That entity makes Leo a trust fund baby who can deploy those funds to influence federal and state judicial selection and other offices for years to come. It also gives Leo the money to influence who gets promoted in other aspects of our society, such as through “Teneo,” which is like the Federalist Society for business, as revealed by Andy Kroll, Andrea Bernstein, and Nick Surgey in a piece published by ProPublica and Documented. (Disclosure: True North’s executive director co-founded Documented and created True North Research in 2017, but she has not co-directed Documented’s investigative work since mid-2019.)
Leo hand-picked the list Trump chose from for three appointments to the Court and aided in the confirmation of the other three who ruled to overturn Roe. Leo’s dark money network spent big to help push Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett onto the Court. With Justices Thomas and Alito, these five make-up the far-right faction dominating the Court, in addition to Chief Justice Roberts.
Their selective interpretation of the law has already stripped Americans of their federal constitutional right to access abortion care, limited the ability of the EPA to regulate carbon to mitigate climate change and promote clean air, and restricted our ability to secure a representative democracy while expanding the power of the super rich, like Crow and Koch, to influence our elections. The right-wing faction Leo helped install is also taking aim at fair maps, the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans, and affirmative action to address structural racism. The faction is busily working to rewrite laws to limit our ability to regulate corporations in numerous ways, particularly regulations that protect our environment.
U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point and needs to be protected, but those entrusted with ruling fairly currently have no accountability for their failure to comply with even minimal requirements to protect the public’s interest in fair courts.
True North Research’s Lisa Graves and Evan Vorpahl contributed to this post.