Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has accepted tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts since joining the high court, including $1,200 worth of tires, valuable historical items and a $5,000 personal check to help pay a relative’s education expenses.
The gifts also included a Bible once owned by the 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 helped run an advocacy group that filed briefs with the Supreme Court.
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 last six years, according to their disclosure forms on file at the court.
The Ethics in Government Act of 1989 prohibits all federal employees, including the justices, from accepting “anything of value” from a person with official business before them. However, under the 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 Assn. 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 I. 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.”
“The public has to wonder when a justice accepts lavish gifts,” said Northwestern University law professor Steven Lubet, a legal ethics expert. “The rich and powerful have a different set of economic interests than other people, and they can afford to give lavish gifts.”
Thomas, through a court spokeswoman, declined to comment when asked in writing why he deemed it appropriate to accept some of the larger gifts. But a former clerk to Thomas defended the practice.
“I don’t see anything wrong in this. I don’t see why it is inappropriate to get gifts from friends,” said John C. Yoo, now a law professor at the UC 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.”
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 Times reviewed the disclosures of all nine justices for the years 1998 through 2003, the only period of time for which disclosure forms were still 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 the top recipient.
Next in that period 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 H. 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. (The official disclosure forms are removed from the public file after six years.)
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. In 1996 she received $100,000 from the philanthropic Kaul Foundation and distributed the money among 26 charities and nonprofit organizations, including law schools, women’s organizations and theatrical companies.
Justices earned $194,300 this year and will get $199,200 in 2005, modest compared with some private-sector lawyers. They are permitted to earn as much as $23,000 more through outside activities, such as teaching.
But membership on the court offers perks in addition to the prestige and power unique to the role of the high court.
Nearly all the 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 M. Kennedy listed honorary memberships in the Washington Golf and Country Club, which they valued last year at $4,000. These sums appeared to be in line with annual membership fees for such clubs in the Washington area. However, a court spokesman said the rules did not require justices to disclose the initiation fees for joining such clubs, which can be far higher.
Because of inconsistencies in the way the justices reported their memberships, they were not included in the Times’ tally of the value of their gifts.
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 G. Breyer and David H. Souter reported turning down all gifts and club memberships. Breyer has traveled on law school programs to Paris; Barcelona, Spain; and Florence, Italy. But Souter stays home and checks 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 influenced by the strict no-gift rules adopted in 1995 by the House and Senate, said another panel member, Jan W. 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.
“The House and Senate concluded it is not healthy to the integrity of their institutions to allow members to accept valuable gifts from strangers. That was the issue for us,” Baran said.
“We would place a limit on the value of gifts from anyone.... To get a new set of tires from a generous car dealer would not be OK under these new rules.”
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.
“A justice of the Supreme Court attracts friends and generosity. These gifts are being given not because he is Clarence Thomas, but because he is Justice Clarence Thomas,” Gillers said.
Gillers said that, despite the comparatively lax rules, he thought most judges refused to accept valuable gifts. “I have friends who have become judges, and once they do, they will not let me pay for lunch,” he said.
This year, Scalia was involved in a controversy 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 his trip on Air Force II 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 exempted from many of the rules that govern lesser federal judges. Moreover, each of the justices is free to decide how the general ethics guidelines apply to them.
For example, when the Sierra Club filed its motion with the high 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 itself 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 members of the Supreme Court.
Thomas, nominated to the Supreme Court at age 43 by President George H.W. 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 voiced 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% of Trammell Crow Co., one of the nation’s biggest commercial real estate firms.
A big Republican donor, Crow last summer gave $25,000 to help launch the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign deriding Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. 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.
Soon afterward, Crow invited Thomas to a family campground in East Texas. Roger Connor, a businessman who was at the camp-out, remembers the all-male gathering.
“They were all smoking cigars. It was a very manly Texas thing,” Connor said. He said the participants slept in sleeping bags and tents, and that the activities included a greased pig race.
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 all-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.”
“I just knew that he was a fan of Frederick Douglass, and I saw that item come available at an auction and I bought it and gave it to him,” Crow said.
Crow donated $175,000 for a new Clarence Thomas wing at the justice’s childhood library in Pin Point, Ga.
At the time, Crow 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 group, which is now defunct.
Gillers, the NYU professor, questioned whether Thomas should have accepted anything from Crow.
The federal rules say a judge “shall not accept a gift from anyone who is seeking official action from or doing business with the court,” Gillers noted.
“If Harlan Crow is a member of the board of a group that files amicus briefs with the court, then I think he comes within that provision,” Gillers said.
Thomas reported receiving gifts nearly every year he has been on the high court. They included $100 worth of cigars from talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, a $500 Stetson hat from the Houston Club, and another $150 worth of cigars from Kansas City businessman Tim Trabon, who said he had never met the justice. He also took a $375 “performance chip,” a gift from a Corvette supplier he met at a rally, for the computer on his Corvette.
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 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.
Another businessman who calls Thomas a friend is Earl Dixon. A pest control company executive in Jacksonville, Fla., and former Republican state legislator, Dixon is also a motor-home enthusiast -- a hobby shared by Thomas. He said they met about four years ago at a motor-coach repair shop in Florida.
Their friendship grew, Dixon said, and when he learned that Thomas was raising a grand-nephew, he gave the justice a $5,000 check to defray his education costs.
“I enjoy talking with him. I enjoy visiting with him. He’s a class act,” Dixon said of the justice.
In 2001, the same year Crow gave him the Douglass Bible, the American Enterprise Institute -- of which Crow is a trustee -- presented Thomas with a bust of Lincoln that the justice valued at $15,000. The think tank praised him for his “clear, consistent, and courageous jurisprudence” on the Supreme Court.
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Gifts accepted by Supreme Court
Federal judges are free to accept gifts of unlimited value as long as the donor does not have business before them. Five of the Supreme Court justices reported and accepted gifts from 1998 through 2003. Here is the list, as valued by the justices:
Justice Clarence Thomas
Total value of gifts: $42,200
* $19,000 Bible from Republican donor
* $15,000 for a Lincoln bust from the American Enterprise Institute
* $5,000 cash gift from a mobile home enthusiast
* $1,200, tires from a trucking executive
* $1,200, batteries from former law clerks
* $800 jacket from Daytona 500 auto race
Sandra Day O’Connor
Total value of gifts: $5,025
* $1,500 for a crystal medallion from Scripps College
* $875 Steuben glass sculpture from the Junior League
* $500 crystal from the National First Ladies Library
* $500 blanket from the American Academy of Achievement
* $500 crystal fountain from the American Bar Assn. Commission on Women in the Profession
* $475 bronze statue from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum
* $300 engraved vase from the New Mexico Military Academy
* $200 quilt from the Conference of State Chief Justices and Administrators
* $175, carved limestone from a San Antonio high school
William H. Rehnquist
Total value of gifts: $5,000
* $5,000 award from Fordham University
Total value of gifts: $1,275
* $300 cowboy boots from the Tarrant County, Texas, Bar Assn.
* $300 silver box from singer Andrea Bocelli
* $300 for framed portraits from Peter Secchia, Republican donor and former ambassador to Italy
* $250 for two cases of wine from Virginia winery
* $125, one case of wine from same winery
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Total value of gifts: $500
* $500 blanket from American Academy of Achievement
Total value of gifts: $0
* Justices David H. Souter, Anthony M. Kennedy, John Paul Stevens and Stephen G. Breyer did not report any gifts accepted.
Note: Figures do not include cash awards given to charity. Also not included are club memberships. Prior years are excluded because complete information on justices is only kept on file for six years.
Source: Annual disclosure forms of Supreme Court justices