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Latest Thomas financial filing shows he hasn’t learned much

Supreme Court justice misses the point that taking favors from billionaires is simply wrong.

Clarence ThomasAl Drago/Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas finally filed a financial disclosure statement — in some cases making disclosures that were years late — which told the American public things it mostly already knew about the justice’s propensity to rely on a Texas billionaire for private jet travel, vacations, and a real estate transaction.

The disclosure, filed at the start of the long holiday weekend last Thursday, after Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito received three-month extensions to their filing deadlines, seeks to amend earlier filings in which the justice now insists he had “inadvertently omitted” information. Much of that information — the trips, the “hospitality” — is now widely known due to the reporting of ProPublica on the decades-long relationship Thomas enjoyed with Harlan Crow, a major donor to conservative causes.


Thomas’s belated and frequently begrudgingly offered disclosures do little to reassure the American public and the parties that will appear before him that he is indeed the fair and impartial jurist they have every reason to expect on the nation’s highest court. The point of financial disclosures is to prevent — or at the very least expose — the potential for conflicts of interest. For judges disclosures hold the key to whether they should recuse themselves from cases before them.

Financial disclosure “statutes promote the likelihood that justices and judges will perform their core function properly, without bias, prejudice, or undue influence, and that reasonable people will not doubt that they are doing so,” US District Court Judge Mark Wolf told a congressional panel in May.

Wolf was a member of the Judicial Conference, which sets policy for the federal judiciary, back in 2011, the first time Thomas’s ethical lapses came to light. Wolf was critical of the panel then for largely ignoring the issue and whether Thomas’s failure to disclose his wife’s income from a conservative think tank was “willful” or not.


The Judicial Conference revisited a portion of its ethics policy in March, requiring disclosure of flights by private jet and trips that had previously been exempt as “personal hospitality” — a loophole large enough to sail a world-class yacht through.

This time around Thomas may be older — and have a lawyer at his side to help with all the legal niceties of disclosure forms — but he is surely no wiser. The form filed for 2022 discloses three trips on Crow’s private plane — one when he traveled to Dallas to be keynote speaker at an American Enterprise Institute event and “Flew private on return trip due to unexpected ice storm,” again when in the wake of the leaked Supreme Court abortion decision he says his “security detail recommended noncommercial travel whenever possible,” and a third trip to vacation at Crow’s estate in the Adirondacks.

Thomas also used the form to reach back to disclose the 2014 purchase of a Thomas family home and other real estate in Savannah, Ga., by Crow — an omission Thomas’s new statement calls “inadvertent.” That purchase too had earlier been revealed in a ProPublica article.

“This late-come effort at ‘cleanup on Aisle 3′ won’t deter us from fully investigating the massive, secret, right-wing billionaire influence” on the court, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said in a statement. The Rhode Island Democrat is sponsoring legislation that would for the first time impose an ethical code on the Supreme Court, similar to that in effect for all other members of the federal judiciary.


In fact, members of the high court have long maintained that even the financial disclosure forms adopted under the post-Watergate 1978 Ethics in Government Act don’t really apply to them and their participation to date has been voluntary — an interpretation Wolf disputed during his congressional appearance.

The broader point of this — or any — financial disclosure law is to make public officials think twice about what constitutes ethical or appropriate conduct — a concept Thomas clearly has failed to comprehend. It’s the codified equivalent of a previous generation’s adage that “if you wouldn’t do it in Macy’s window, don’t do it at all.”

If the disclosure of a trip or a gift is going to be a source of embarrassment if made public, well, the answer is simple: Don’t take it. For judges the bar is particularly high. Most never know where the next case, where the next set of litigants will come from. Judges operating below the Supreme Court level and subject to a strict Code of Ethics know that well and with rare exception take it to heart.

The Supreme Court should be required to do no less.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.