Clarence Thomas and high court’s low ethical standards, by Clarence Page

4/13/2023, 6 p.m.
It must be more than a little embarrassing for a Supreme Court justice to lament that he took some bad …

It must be more than a little embarrassing for a Supreme Court justice to lament that he took some bad legal advice.

But the embarrassment will be worth it for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas if it helps him to get out from under the bigger embarrassments reported by the investigative news service ProPublica.

I’m referring to his failure to report more than two decades and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of luxury trips around the world on the sort of super yacht and private jets lifestyle that I usually associate with the Roy family on HBO’s “Succession.”

The largesse came courtesy of Harlan Crow, a Dallas billionaire and longtime friend of Justice Thomas’ and his wife. The core of the controversy is not so much that Justice Thomas received the gifts but that he did not disclose receiving them.

For example, Justice Thomas did disclose a 2015 gift from Mr. Crow—a bronze bust of abolitionist Frederick Douglass valued at $6,484, ProPublica’s report said. But his reports don’t mention the vacations and other travel on Mr. Crow’s plane.

On Friday, more than 24 hours after ProPublica’s report, Justice Thomas responded in a statement that he and his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, were among the “dearest friends” of Harlan and Kathy Crow, and, “as friends do,” had joined the Crows on family trips for more than 25 years.

He also pleaded innocent to any suspicions that he was trying to slip past ethics rules. Since his early days on the court, Justice Thomas’ statement said, he was advised by “colleagues and others in the judiciary” that “this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the court, was not reportable.”

Well, that may sound lovely, as far as the Thomases and Crows are concerned but, in today’s fashionable parlance, it’s not a good look.

In that vein, ProPublica couldn’t help but compare Justice Thomas’ luxurious vacationing among the rich and famous with the modest “RV park” reg’lar-guy version he describes in a documentary financed partly by Mr. Crow.

“I prefer the RV parks. I prefer the Walmart parking lots to the beaches and things like that. There’s something normal to me about it,” ProPublica quoted Justice Thomas as saying. “I come from regular stock, and I prefer that—I prefer being around that.”

Well, I don’t think anyone should begrudge Justice Thomas’ enjoyment of an old friend’s generosity, as long as he discloses it. That way, in keeping with our nation’s democratic principles of governance and accountability, we all get a chance to be the judge.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said his panel “will act” based on the ProPublica report, although he did not specify what steps they would take.

We probably have a clue in another bill, the Supreme Court Ethics Act, that was introduced earlier this year to close what Sen. Durbin called “the inexcusable Supreme Court loophole” in federal judicial ethics rules.

“The highest court in the land shouldn’t have the lowest ethical standards,” Sen. Durbin said.

He makes a good point. In fact, a federal statute already governs gifts to judges. But, perhaps because it was produced by arguing lawyers, its wording is open to interpretation and the justices have questioned whether it can be constitutionally applied to them.

To end that confusion and clarify the value of ethical conduct, the proposed Supreme Court Ethics Act calls for a code of conduct for the Supreme Court and a mechanism for the public to report potentially unethical conduct by justices.

Judges below the Supreme Court are instructed to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

That’s an excellent standard that should be fundamental to all of the Supreme Court’s business.

None of the justices should feel insulted or inconvenienced by the need to protect their own integrity—on which rests the rule of law itself.

Despite his reputation for abundant silence on the bench, Justice Thomas has spoken wisely and at length in other forums about the importance of honesty, integrity and the danger of victimhood mentalities and entitlement attitudes.

Whether his failure to file all of his disclosure statements resulted from bad legal advice or not, he is hardly the only person who needs to have a code of ethics to help end that confusion.

The public needs it too. The demands of self-government call on all citizens to appreci- ate sound standards of ethical conduct—and then do our best to live by them.

The writer is a syndicated columnist and senior member of the Chicago Tribune editorial board.