The US Supreme Court is grappling with a series of ethical concerns, with particular focus on Justice Clarence Thomas and several other conservative justices. These controversies have spurred calls from members of Congress for Chief Justice John Roberts to testify and for greater accountability within the court, all in the name of safeguarding democracy.
Senate Democrats are pushing for a vote on a bill that would establish a code of conduct for Supreme Court justices, akin to the rules followed by other government agencies. Although the bill faces an uphill battle in a divided Congress, its proponents demand that the court develop a code within 180 days, including guidelines on recusals tied to potential conflicts of interest and disclosure of gifts and travel.
The ethical questions surrounding the court's justices continue to mount. Recently, The Guardian revealed that lawyers who have appeared before the Supreme Court had paid an aide to Justice Clarence Thomas via the digital payment platform Venmo.
An overview of the ethical controversies involving the Supreme Court justices:
Real Estate Transactions:
Harlan Crow, a Texas Republican billionaire mega-donor and friend of Justice Clarence Thomas, purchased three properties from Thomas and his family, including Thomas's childhood home in Savannah, Georgia.
Crow extensively renovated the properties, even allowing Thomas's mother to live in the Savannah home rent-free. The undisclosed cost of these transactions exceeded $100,000. Crow claims that the purchase was made with the intention of transforming the home into a museum dedicated to Thomas.
Justice Neil Gorsuch sold a 40-acre property in rural Colorado that he co-owned after assuming his position on the court. The buyer's identity was left blank on the disclosure form, but it was later revealed that Brian Duffy, the CEO of Greenberg Traurig, a law firm that had over 20 cases before the Supreme Court, made the purchase in 2017.
Gorsuch disclosed the sale, which yielded between $250,000 and $500,000. School Support:
Harlan Crow also paid substantial sums of money in private school tuition for two boarding schools attended by Justice Thomas's great-nephew.
This transaction was not disclosed. Influence from External Parties:
Leonard Leo, a prominent Republican activist, paid $25,000 to Justice Thomas's wife, Ginni, for polling services. The payment was made through Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, with instructions to avoid mentioning Ginni's involvement.
Although the direct ethical implications for Clarence Thomas are unclear, this payment raises concerns about potential conflicts of interest. Luxury Trips:
For more than two decades, Justice Thomas accepted extravagant trips on private planes and luxury yachts from his friend Harlan Crow, reportedly worth millions of dollars.
Thomas failed to disclose these trips on financial disclosure forms. Crow asserts that he never sought to influence Thomas politically or legally and never discussed pending Supreme Court cases. However, it is worth noting that a company tied to Crow was involved in at least one case before the Supreme Court, raising questions about potential conflicts of interest.
Justice Samuel Alito also faced scrutiny after accepting an all-expenses-paid fishing trip to Alaska on a private jet, courtesy of hedge fund billionaire and conservative mega-donor Paul Singer. Singer has been involved in ten appeals to the Supreme Court.
In a rare move, Alito defended himself in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, stating that he followed what he believed to be standard practice and asserting that recusal was not necessary. As these ethical controversies continue to unfold, they underscore the need for greater transparency, accountability, and a formal code of conduct within the US Supreme Court.