PoliticsSupreme Court


Justice Thomas' actions prompt calls for Supreme Court ethics reform

One reason for the push for change is because of how influential Supreme Court justices are.
Posted at 2:07 PM, Apr 08, 2023

Previously undisclosed gifts totaling hundreds ofthousands of dollars given to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas by a prominent conservative billionaire have sparked a debate over the ethics of Supreme Court justices.

On Friday, Justice Thomas confirmed he has received some trips over the years from Harlan and Kathy Crow. However, the justice said he did not report it because he didn't think he had to.

News of the trips was first reported by ProPublica, an online, non-profit journalism website.

Congress vs. Supreme Court

Ethics rules involving members of Congress are very clear. 

In fact, online, there are pages and pages of guidance detailing when a member of Congress can accept a gift and when they can't.

Supreme Court justices, however, follow a completely different set of rules — rules that some say need to change.

One reason for the push for change is because of how influential Supreme Court justices are. 

From rulings on abortion last year to anticipated rulings on voting rights and race this year, their impact is as great as ever.

"Ethics rules for judges are just different," said Charles Geyh, a law professor specializing in ethics at Indiana University.

Geyh says take for instance, a code of ethics, the House and Senate have one. 

So does the White House. 

The Supreme Court does not. 

Geyh says the court is deeply rooted in tradition. Adopting an ethics policy has been a controversial idea.

"They don't like getting pushed around by Congress," Geyh said. 

"I think there probably is a feeling within the Supreme Court that they are a unique kind of court, that they are not subject to the regulation of mere mortals," Geyh said. 

Ethics at the Supreme Court is in the spotlight again. 

Not only after Justice Thomas' recent revelation but also after a controversial leak of the abortion decision last year.  

While federal law for decades has required justices to list their financial information, including some gifts, something known as the "personal hospitality exemption" existed. 

Basically, if a justice thought someone was being kind to them as a person as opposed to their work as a justice, they wouldn't have to disclose it. 

Even something like a private jet trip could be kept private. 

That exemption, though, went away last month for many gifts. 

Justice Thomas, in a statement, says his past trips didn't previously need to be disclosed but going forward he will report them. 

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas

Justice Clarence Thomas confirms getting lavish trips from billionaire

The trips raise questions over ethics rules that apparently allowed the Supreme Court justice to go on vacations well beyond his means.


Calls for change

Ethics at the Supreme Court has attracted the attention of Congress with lawmakers in recent days calling for stricter rules and committee hearings. 

One idea is to withhold funding from the court until ethics policies are implemented. 

"This is really a new low for the court," Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democratic congressman from Georgia, told Scripps News. 

One change some lawmakers would like to see includes adopting a clear, formal policy of investigating ethics violations. 

Right now, that does not exist.

Reform may be difficult to pass and implement, however. Some conservatives have expressed concern it could result in more politicization of the court. 

Others have expressed reservation about telling another branch of government what they must do.