New York Times story raises questions that need answers

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  • Dale Eisman

Americans are entitled to a quick and complete response – directly from Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas – to the serious legal and ethical questions raised by Sunday’s New York Times report on Justice Thomas’ travel and apparent fundraising activities, Common Cause said today.

“Has Justice Thomas been traveling on a developer’s private jet and yacht, on the developer’s dime, while reporting that his expenses were borne by someone else?” asked Bob Edgar president of the nonpartisan government watchdog group. “Do Supreme Court justices get a pass on the ethical standards that every other judge must meet?”

Edgar said Thomas must speak to the discrepancies between his financial reports and the Times’ account of his apparent travel aboard a jet and yacht owned by Dallas developer Harlan Crow. And Chief Justice Roberts, as steward of the court’s reputation, must clarify how the Court intends to meet its commitment to observe the ethical requirements imposed on other judges, Edgar asserted.

“Today’s story in the Times should trigger alarms in Congress and bar associations across the country, as well as in the Court itself,” Edgar said. “It appears Justice Thomas may have provided false information, under oath, on his disclosure form. If so, it’s a matter for federal prosecutors to review under the Ethics in Government Act, which imposes civil penalties for such violations.”

Common Cause discovered in January that Justice Thomas had failed over 20 years to meet the Ethics Act’s requirement that he report his wife’s sources of income. Thomas submitted amended reports hours after that revelation, saying his earlier failure resulted from a “misunderstanding.”

“Justice Thomas already has displayed what is at best a troublingly cavalier attitude toward a critical disclosure requirement,” Edgar said. “The annual disclosure forms are the only mechanism that lawyers and litigants have to verify that the justices are not participating in cases in which they have a financial interest.

“The Times’ report also suggests that Justice Thomas has violated a longstanding ethical standard for judges by participating in fundraising on behalf of a museum in his hometown,” Edgar added. “The project certainly appears worthy, but the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges explicitly prohibits other judges from fundraising activities even on behalf of good causes.

Edgar noted that Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer told a House subcommittee this spring that members of the high court are voluntarily complying with the Code of Conduct and its canons; the new revelations about Justice Thomas suggest otherwise, he said.

“Chief Justice Roberts, as chief steward of the court’s reputation, must now step in and see that the rules are applied to all members of the federal judiciary,” Edgar said. “The highest court must meet the highest standards.”