Calls to implement tougher ethics standards on Supreme Court justices are likely to be stirred again following the publication of a new report about Clarence Thomas’ lifestyle, though sources in both parties say there’s no chance that Congress will pass new legislation.
Last month, the Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill along party lines that would create a code of ethics for Supreme Court justices, who are not bound to the same code of conduct that applies to lower court judges.
But it’s unclear when – or if – it will get a vote on the floor, sources say, and even if it does get a vote, it has almost no chance of winning at least nine Republican senators in order to get 60 votes to break a filibuster. Republicans say it’s up to the court – not Congress – to impose new rules, and Chief Justice John Roberts has resisted Congress’ efforts, citing concerns about maintaining judicial independence.
In addition, Speaker Kevin McCarthy and House Republicans are strongly opposed to the bill and have no interest in this issue, so it has zero chance of passing the House.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is still trying to investigate the gift-giving to Thomas, even as the probe has moved slowly, with Democrats indicating they plan to continue to review the matter.
ProPublica on Thursday detailed an extensive amount of gifts and hospitality Thomas enjoyed over the last three decades from his wealthy friends, including numerous flights on private planes, skybox tickets to sporting events, stays at luxury resorts, and a standing invitation to play at a high-end private golf club in Florida. The new report is the broadest look yet at how Thomas’ social circle has funded – with limited disclosure to the public – a regular stream of extravagant excursions and events since he became a Supreme Court justice, though none of the Thomas benefactors highlighted in the new report appear to have had direct business in front of the Supreme Court.
The new revelations also raise questions about whether Thomas broke the law with his failure to report at least some of the gifts and hospitality he received. Ethics experts who spoke to ProPublica said some of the hospitality he received, like when his friends hosted him at their personal homes, may not have required disclosure, but that other types of gifts, such as the costly tickets he received to major sporting events, should have been reported.
It’s the latest in a string of reports from ProPublica this year that have detailed gifts Thomas has received over the years, a series that has also scrutinized Justice Samuel Alito. Thomas has previously said some of the gifts he received amounted to “personal hospitality from close personal friends” that didn’t need to be disclosed, though he has said he would amend his financial disclosure forms to reflect a 2014 real estate deal made with a GOP megadonor.
Alito, meanwhile, has rejected Congress’ efforts for reform.
“Congress did not create the Supreme Court,” Alito said in an interview last month with The Wall Street Journal. “I know this is a controversial view, but I’m willing to say it. No provision in the Constitution gives them the authority to regulate the Supreme Court – period.”