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What the revelations about Justice Clarence Thomas mean for the Supreme Court

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Supreme Court is back in the news again and not because of the law. ProPublica reported this week the Justice Clarence Thomas failed to disclose decades of trips on yachts, private planes and resorts worth, potentially, millions of dollars that were paid for by a conservative billionaire. Justice Thomas said in a statement yesterday he didn't disclose those trips because, quote, "he was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends who did not have business before the court was not reportable." And he said because of new disclosure rules that have gone into effect for judges, he will, quote, again, "follow this guidance in the future." NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg joins us.

Nina, thanks so much for being with us.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott, as always.

SIMON: What do we know?

TOTENBERG: Well, these allegations center on Justice Thomas' friendship with Harlan Crow, a real estate magnate and GOP megadonor. And these are just some of the highlights of the ProPublica report. In June 2019, the Thomases flew on Crow's private jet to Indonesia for nine days of island hopping on the billionaire's yacht. That sort of trip would have cost him more than a half million dollars if he had paid for it, which he obviously didn't.

Every summer, Thomas has now acknowledged he spends about a week at Camp Topridge, Crow's private resort in the Adirondacks. There, he hobnobs not just with Crow and his wife, but other Crow friends, big corporate leaders and conservative activists and influencers. The report used Federal Aviation Administration records to show that Thomas repeatedly has flown on Crow's private jet for other occasions - for instance, to speak at the unveiling in New York of a huge statue of the justice's beloved eighth-grade teacher. There, the justice publicly thanked the donors who paid for the statue - guess who? - Harlan Crow and his wife, Kathy.

SIMON: Now, Justice Thomas says he followed the rules as he was told to. But is this out of the ordinary?

TOTENBERG: Well, I spoke to Stephen Gillers, the author of the leading judicial ethics text about this, and he said that while this is arguably legal, the key word is arguably. The code of judicial ethics that applies to all federal judges has rules that require reporting of all gifts and travel paid for by others. But until last month, those rules had an exception for private travel and hospitality paid for by a personal friend. So there's your loophole. Now, the judicial conference of the United States has just changed those rules this year to clarify - that's their words - that judges may not escape reporting travel that is paid for by someone else and that even personal hospitality at a private estate must be reported if the property is not owned personally by the friend extending the hospitality. Here, according to ProPublica, the Crow estate is actually owned by one of the billionaire's corporations.

SIMON: Do other justices do something like this, to your knowledge?

TOTENBERG: You know, Scott, I've covered the court for almost 50 years, and I've never heard anything like this. The watchdog group Fix the Court has reported on a handful of trips that other justices have taken, mainly to universities to speak, where the transportation was not reported. But those seem mainly to have been oversights, whereas Thomas seems to believe that he has no responsibility to report these very lavish trips. And Crow told ProPublica that neither he nor, as far as he knows, any of his other guests have cases before the Supreme Court or discussed matters before the court.

SIMON: This is another blow to the Supreme Court's reputation in recent years. How do they recover?

TOTENBERG: This is only the latest embarrassment for a court that's been buffeted by everything from the leak of the abortion decision to the failure to find out who did it and the failure to question justices the same way other court personnel were questioned and, as well, the apparent inability of the court to reach a consensus on even writing a code of ethics for itself. And that's before you even talk about the court's very hard swing to the right, which lots of people support, and other people don't. And it's gotten the court sort of in the crosshairs of public controversy even more than usual.

SIMON: NPR's Nina Totenberg. You'll follow all of it. Thanks so much.

TOTENBERG: Thanks, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFFREY SILVERSTEIN'S "TRIP SITTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.