Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has accepted tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts since joining the Supreme Court, from $1,200 worth of tires to valuable historical...
WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has accepted tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts since joining the Supreme Court, from $1,200 worth of tires to valuable historical items and a $5,000 personal check to help pay a relative’s education expenses.
The gifts included a Bible once owned by 19th-century author and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, which Thomas valued at $19,000, and a bust of President Lincoln valued at $15,000.
He also took a free trip aboard a private jet to the exclusive Bohemian Grove club in Northern California — arranged by a wealthy Texas real-estate investor who has helped run an advocacy group that filed briefs with the Supreme Court.
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Those and other gifts were disclosed by Thomas under a 1978 federal ethics law that requires high-ranking government officials, including the nine Supreme Court justices, to file a report each year that lists gifts, money and other items they have received.
Thomas has reported accepting much more valuable gifts than his Supreme Court colleagues over the past six years, according to disclosure forms on file at the court.
The Ethics in Government Act of 1989 prohibits all federal employees, including justices, from accepting “anything of value” from a person with official business before them. However, under rules that the federal judicial system adopted to implement that law, judges are free to accept gifts of unlimited value from people without official business before the court.
Representatives for the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court argue that requiring the disclosure of any gifts is sufficient to prevent corruption or the appearance of favoritism.
But in October, an American Bar Association panel called for tightening the rules to forbid judges from taking expensive gifts, free tickets and other valuable items, regardless of who is the donor.
“Why would someone do that — give a gift to Clarence Thomas? Unless they are family members or really close friends, the only reason to give gifts is to influence the judge,” said Mark Harrison, a Phoenix lawyer who heads the ABA’s Commission on the Model Code of Judicial Conduct. “And we think it is not helpful to have judges accepting gifts for no apparent reason.”
Thomas, through a court spokeswoman, declined to comment. But a former clerk to Thomas defended the practice.
“I don’t see why it is inappropriate to get gifts from friends,” said John Yoo, now a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “This reflects a bizarre effort to over-ethicize everyday life. If one of these people were to appear before the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas would recuse himself. So I don’t see the problem.”
Despite the open-ended rules, most of the other Supreme Court justices reported accepting only items of lesser value, or token gifts for speaking at formal events, or nothing at all.
The Los Angeles Times reviewed the disclosures of all nine justices for the years 1998 through 2003, the only period of time for which disclosure forms still were on file at the court. They reported receiving cash, which they usually gave to charity, but kept or used various valuable items, mementos and club memberships.
In that six-year period, Thomas accepted $42,200 in gifts, making him easily the top recipient.
Next was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who accepted $5,825 in gifts, mostly small crystal figurines and other items. She also reported an $18,000 award in 2003 from the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, but listed it as income. The money was for the society’s Benjamin Franklin Award for Distinguished Public Service. She gave other cash awards to charity.
Third was Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who accepted a $5,000 award from Fordham University — the only gift he reported for the six-year period.
In addition, the Times obtained a full set of disclosure forms for Thomas’ 13-year tenure on the court, as well as forms dating to 1992 from Justice Antonin Scalia, 1993 for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 1996 for O’Connor.
Since joining the court, Thomas reported accepting gifts valued at $47,745. He also reported other gifts without citing a dollar value, ranging from “small gifts and flowers” to free plane trips and accommodations from friends.
Ginsburg has received a number of large monetary awards since joining the court in 1993, which she reported giving to charity. She received $100,000 from the philanthropic Kaul Foundation in 1996 and distributed the money among 26 charities and nonprofits, including law schools, women’s organizations and theatrical companies.
Justices earned $194,300 this year and will receive $199,200 in 2005, comfortable salaries but modest compared with some private-sector lawyers. Justices are permitted to earn as much as $23,000 more through outside activities, such as teaching.
But nearly all justices accept honorary memberships to private clubs, worth thousands of dollars annually. Most are Washington-area clubs that donate the memberships.
For example, Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens and Anthony Kennedy listed honorary memberships in the Washington Golf and Country Club, which they valued last year at $4,000. Several justices also take lengthy, all-expenses-paid summer sojourns abroad where they are paid to lecture on the law. Locales have included Italy, the French Riviera and the Greek isles.
Justices Stephen Breyer and David Souter reported turning down all gifts and club memberships. Breyer has traveled to Paris, Barcelona, Spain, and Florence, Italy, on law-school programs. But Souter has stayed home and checked the box marked “NONE” for gifts on his yearly disclosure forms. Thomas also routinely passes up the overseas trips.
In calling for tighter restrictions on gifts to judges, the ABA commission was strongly influenced by the strict no-gift rules adopted in 1995 by the House and Senate, said another panel member, Jan Baran, a former general counsel to the Republican National Committee.
Members of Congress and their staffs may not accept “anything of monetary value” greater than $50 at one time, or more than $100 from one person during the year. The only exceptions are gifts from family members and close personal friends.
New York University law professor Stephen Gillers, a legal ethicist, said the federal judiciary should adopt a similarly strict ban on judges accepting valuable gifts.
Scalia was involved in a controversy this year over whether a free plane ride aboard Air Force II to go duck hunting in Louisiana with Vice President Dick Cheney amounted to a gift, at a time when an energy case involving Cheney was before the court.
Scalia rejected a demand from the Sierra Club that he withdraw from the case, arguing that the trip did not amount to something of value. Scalia noted that he, his son and his son-in-law had bought round-trip tickets so they could return home on a commercial flight. “In other words, none of us saved a cent by flying on the vice president’s plane,” Scalia said in a March 18 opinion.
He subsequently voted for Cheney in the court case.
By law and tradition, the Supreme Court justices are exempt from many rules that govern lesser federal judges. Moreover, each of the justices is free to decide how the general ethics guidelines apply to him or her.
For example, when the Sierra Club filed its motion with the Supreme Court asserting that Scalia should step aside in the Cheney case, the court referred the matter to Scalia for him to decide.
Similarly, neither the ethics rules nor the court stands in the way of justices benefiting from the generosity of others.
Even if the ABA panel’s recommendation to tighten the rules on gifts were adopted for federal judges, it would serve only as a guide for Supreme Court members.
Thomas, nominated to the Supreme Court at age 43 by the first President Bush, has won many admirers who see inspiration in his rise from a childhood of poverty in the segregated South. Some of the gifts he has accepted have come from casual acquaintances or, in one case, a stranger. More often, they came from new, conservative friends who voice admiration for him.
Foremost among those conservative friends is Harlan Crow. The son of well-known Dallas real-estate executive Trammell Crow, he runs a family holding company that owns 10 percent of Trammell Crow Co., one of the nation’s biggest commercial real-estate companies.
A big Republican donor, Crow last summer gave $25,000 to help launch the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign deriding the Vietnam War record of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
In an interview, Crow said he met Thomas 10 years ago at a conference in Dallas where the justice was a speaker. “I was in the audience, and I was impressed,” Crow said.
In 1997, Crow flew Thomas on his personal plane to the San Francisco area and sponsored him as his guest at the Bohemian Grove, a private organization that for more than 125 years has held male retreats in the redwoods of Northern California for government and business leaders.
Crow and his wife, Kathy, in 2001 also gave Thomas the Bible that once belonged to Frederick Douglass. In disclosing the gift in his report for that year, Thomas valued the Bible at $19,000 and listed the Crows as “personal friends.”
Crow also donated $175,000 for a new Clarence Thomas wing at the justice’s childhood library in Pin Point, Ga.
Crow at the time was a national board member of the Center for the Community Interest, an advocacy group that filed amicus briefs with the Supreme Court espousing conservative views on cases involving such issues as crime and pornography. Crow said he was not deeply involved with the now-defunct group.
Thomas reported receiving gifts nearly every year he has been on the Supreme Court. They included $100 worth of cigars from talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, a $500 Stetson hat from the Houston Club, and an additional $150 worth of cigars from Kansas City businessman Tim Trabon, who said he never had met the justice. Thomas also took a $375 “performance chip” for the computer in his Corvette, a gift from a Corvette supplier he met at a rally.
There was an $800 Daytona 500 commemorative jacket after Thomas served as grand marshal at the race in 1999, $1,200 worth of tires from a businessman in Omaha, Neb., in 2002, and $1,375 in cowboy boots, Stetson hats, rawhide coat and a silver buckle after engagements in Texas in 1995 and 1996.
The only year Thomas listed no gifts or club memberships was 2003, the year he reported receiving $500,000 as part of a reported $1.5 million book contract for an autobiography with HarperCollins, a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.