- By Sam Cabral
- BBC News, Washington
US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has acknowledged he took three trips aboard a Republican mega-donor’s private plane last year, as an ethics row grips the nation’s top court.
The conservative judge said failing to previously report receiving such hospitality had been “inadvertent”.
Supreme Court jurists are required to file annual financial disclosure forms.
Justice Thomas was among the last to do so, but he is not the only one facing potential conflicts of interest.
Justice Samuel Alito, another conservative member of the court who is facing scrutiny, also filed his own yearly report on Thursday.
Critics are pushing to adopt a new ethics code for the nine justices who receive lifetime appointments to the nation’s highest court.
It follows a series of US media reports that revealed Justice Thomas, 75, had failed to disclose several expensive gifts from Harlan Crow, a wealthy real estate developer and conservative benefactor.
ProPublica, an investigative journalism non-profit, reported Mr Crow had paid for private school tuition for a child raised by the judge, purchased the Georgia home where the judge’s mother resides, and has lavished him with luxury trips for more than two decades.
Under the rules for sitting members of the US federal judiciary, a Supreme Court justice should list the “personal hospitality of any individual” as a gift.
But before the disclosure report released on Thursday, Justice Thomas allegedly failed to report several such gifts, raising questions over whether Mr Crow could have leveraged their friendship to influence business before the court.
Justice Thomas’ attorney said in a statement that the ethics complaints stemmed from “left wing ‘watchdog’ groups” who were “motivated by hatred for his judicial philosophy”.
“He has never accepted a gift from anyone with business before the Court,” Elliot S Berke wrote.
“For anyone who knows him at all, it is clear that no-one influences Justice Clarence Thomas’s jurisprudence. But friends are dear, close, and separate.”
Accusing critics of “political blood sport”, Mr Berke said there had been “no wilful ethics transgression, and any prior reporting errors were strictly inadvertent”.
Mr Berke added that the judge may seek to amend prior reports to include disclosures he had previously thought he did not have to report.
Of the three trips detailed in Thursday’s report, one was to Mr Crow’s mountain lodge in upstate New York and two were to a conservative conference in Texas.
Justice Thomas reportedly visits the New York lodge every year, but the report claims his 2022 travel there took place amid concerns for his safety after the court’s draft opinion overturning abortion rights nationwide was leaked to the public.
Court officials recommended that he avoid commercial travel, Justice Thomas says.
Similar allegations of unethical conduct have been levelled at Justice Alito, who also failed to report private paid-for trips.
ProPublica wrote in June that the 73-year-old went on a 2008 fishing trip to Alaska with hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, who has repeatedly had business before the Supreme Court in the years since.
Justice Alito has vigorously defended himself against what he calls “misleading” claims, appearing thrice in the op-ed pages of the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal.
His 2022 report acknowledges a trip to Rome paid for by a conservative group that has participated in religious liberty cases at the top court since 2020, as well as the payment he receives for teaching two law school courses.
The heightened focus on court ethics has also drawn other potential lapses by Supreme Court members into its dragnet.
Staff to liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor promoted her literary career through visits to colleges and libraries, according to the Associated Press.
And the wife of Chief Justice John Roberts has made more than $10m (£8m) as a legal recruiter for firms that practise before the court, Business Insider reported.
Efforts to review and reform the court’s ethics have advanced in the US Senate but are unlikely to pass due to broad Republican opposition.
Amid growing calls for stronger requirements, the federal judiciary last month revised its guidance to require a fuller accounting of gifts such as free trips.
The reports made public on Thursday come nearly three months after those of the other seven jurists. Justices Thomas and Alito had requested 90-day extensions from the 15 May deadline.
Justice Thomas, who was appointed to the court in 1991, and Justice Alito, who has served since 2006, are considered its most conservative members.
Since the court consolidated a 6-3 conservative-leaning majority, both men have been at the vanguard of major recent decisions such as the repeal of Roe v Wade and the overturning of affirmative action for college admissions.