Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas flew on a private jet in 2018 to speak at the annual winter donor summit of the Koch network – a trip that was intended to be a fundraising draw for the influential conservative political organization with interests before the court, according to a report published Friday by ProPublica.
At the summit, held in Palm Springs, California, Thomas attended a private dinner for the Koch network’s donors, ProPublica reported. According to the outlet, it was at least the second time Thomas had attended a meeting of the network founded by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch and his brother, David Koch, who died in 2019. Thomas did not disclose the 2018 trip, ProPublica reported.
The revelation adds to the controversies facing Thomas and the court more broadly that have led Democrats and court transparency advocates to call for the nine justices to adopt a binding code of ethics.
In recent weeks, at least two of the justices have publicly suggested the court should act. Justice Elena Kagan on Friday said she and her colleagues could adapt the policy that governs all lower-court judges to reflect the unique structure of the Supreme Court.
“I think it would be a good thing for the court to do,” Kagan said during a live-streamed conversation with the dean of Notre Dame’s law school. “It would help in our own compliance with the rules, and it would, I think, go far in persuading other people that we were adhering to highest standards of conduct.”
Kagan noted that Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh had also recently said he hoped the court would soon take steps to address ethics issues.
The latest ProPublica report focused on Thomas’ interactions with the Koch network, which has given millions of dollars to a conservative legal organization behind one of the Supreme Court’s biggest cases of the term that begins in October. The group, Cause of Action Institute, is asking the justices to overturn a decades-old precedent long targeted by conservatives concerned about the power of federal government agencies. The precedent has been used extensively by the government to defend environmental, financial and consumer protection regulations.
In response to the report, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) called for Thomas to recuse himself from the case, questioning whether the justice could be impartial because of his previously undisclosed involvement with the Koch network.
Thomas did not respond to a request for comment through a Supreme Court spokesperson. In a statement, a representative for the Koch network, which is formally known as Stand Together, pushed back on the notion that Thomas’ presence at the 2018 donor summit was improper.
“There is a long tradition of public officials, including Supreme Court Justices, sharing their experiences, ideas, and judicial philosophy with members of the public at dinners and other events,” Stand Together spokeswoman Gretchen Reiter stated. “All of the sitting Justices and many who came before them have contributed to the national dialogue in speeches, book tours, and social gatherings. Our events are no different. To claim otherwise is false.”
ProPublica has previously reported on Thomas’ friendship with influential Republican donor Harlan Crow, who over two decades has lavished gifts and financial favors upon Thomas. Crow has denied any impropriety and said the two do not discuss Supreme Court cases.
The gifts Thomas accepted from Crow have included luxury vacations around the globe – notably travel on a superyacht and private jet – that were not disclosed by the justice, according to ProPublica. Subsequent investigations by the outlet revealed that Crow also paid the private school tuition for one of Thomas’ relatives. It also reported that Thomas had failed to disclose a real estate deal in which Crow purchased and renovated a house where Thomas’s mother was living.
In a statement in April, Thomas said “colleagues and others in the judiciary” had advised him that luxury trips financed by Crow were “personal hospitality” that did not have to be disclosed, and he maintained that Crow and his wife were among his “dearest friends.”
Ethics rules for federal judges and the nine justices, which were revised in March, made clear that starting with the 2022 forms, judges and justices must report trips by private jet. In his most recent financial disclosure report made public in August, Thomas reported three trips on Crow’s private jet in 2022 and for the first time detailed Crow’s purchase of properties from the justice’s family years earlier.
The Washington Post has also reported that Thomas has for years claimed income from a defunct real estate firm and that conservative judicial activist arranged for Thomas’s wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, to be paid tens of thousands of dollars for consulting work but with the specification that she not be mentioned on the billing paperwork.
The scrutiny on Thomas’s decades-long relationship with Crow has sparked investigations, calls for him to resign or be removed, and at least one lawsuit. In April, Senate Democrats publicly urged Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to start his own investigation into Crow’s gifts to Thomas, and in July, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill that would require the Supreme Court to adopt a binding code of ethics.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) in April called on the Judicial Conference, the federal court system’s policymaking body, to refer Thomas to the U.S. attorney general for potential ethics violations.
“Oh, my,” Whitehouse said in a social media post Friday in response to the latest ProPublica report. “More undisclosed private jet travel… more engagement with billionaire-funded organizations scheming to influence the Court.”
Also in April, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a civil and criminal complaint against Thomas, saying that his acceptance and failure to disclose “repeated, lavish gifts” undermined confidence in the Supreme Court as an institution.
Democratic lawmakers renewed their calls for ethics reform at the Supreme Court after ProPublica reported in June on Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s relationship with Paul Singer, a billionaire hedge fund manager, as well as conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo’s role in organizing a trip Alito took with Singer to an Alaskan fishing resort. Alito responded to the report – before it had even published – in a Wall Street Journal guest column titled “ProPublica Misleads Its Readers.”
Alito has dismissed the idea that Congress has the authority to impose ethical standards on the high court. He told the Journal in an interview that “no provision in the Constitution gives them the authority to regulate the Supreme Court – period.”
Kagan demurred when asked at Notre Dame on Friday whether she could say which justice was holding up progress on reaching consensus.
“No! What goes on in the conference room goes on in the conference room,” she said.
“I don’t want to suggest that there is one holdout,” Kagan added in response to the question from the law school dean, G. Marcus Cole. “There are complicated issues here. There are totally good-faith disagreements or concerns, if you will. There are some things to be worked out, and I hope we can get them worked out.”
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Emma Brown contributed to this report.