Yachts, $10m payouts and secret hunting trips: The Supreme Court’s long history of ethics scandals


The US Supreme Court has a credibility problem.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committeehosted a hearing exploring whether the high court needs to adopt stricter ethics scandals, following a series of revelations that Justice Clarence Thomas accepted lavish travel and accommodations from a Republican megadonor named Harlan Crow.

Senators from both parties have proposals in the works that would impose new rules on the high court, which has long been left to police itself and prides itself on a culture of confidentiality and independence from politics.

“The highest court in the land should not have the lowest standards,” Judiciary Committee chair Dick Durbin said on Tuesday.

In January, less than half of respondents to a poll approved of the job the high court was doing.

The focus on Justice Thomas may be recent, but the court has a long history of ethics scandals. Here’s what you need to know.

Clarence Thomas and a Billionaire’s ‘Hospitality’

The scandal that broke open this debate ties back to Harlan Crow, a conservative Texas  billionaire and major donor to conservative causes.

Investigative outlet ProPublica found that Mr Crow had flown Justice Thomas and his family around the world on a private jet and hosted annual summer holidays at his Adirondacks resort, trips which the jurist failed to disclose.

“As friends do, we have joined [Mr Crow and his wife] on a number of family trips during the more than quarter century we have known them,” Justice Thomas said of the trips in a statement.

“Early in my tenure at the Court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable,” he added.

The ties went deeper than just vacations though. Mr Crow also bought a group of properties from Justice Thomas in Georgia, and currently owns the house where the high court judge’s mother lives.

Justice Niel Gorsuch, meanwhile, sold a $2m property to the owner of a law firm with regular cases before the Supreme Court.

The additional scrutiny against Justice Thomas also yielded news the conservative jurist failed to accurately report hundreds of thousands of dollars of income from a family real estate holding company.

Ginni Thomas and the Big Lie

In the throes of the 2020 election season, where the Supreme Court would eventually hear cases from Donald Trump challenging election results, Ginni Thomas, wife of Clarence Thomas, lobbied the White House to continued falsely claiming Mr Trump won the contest.

“Help This Great President stand firm, Mark!!!” reads one message from November of that year she sent to Mr Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows. “You are the leader, with him, who is standing for America’s constitutional governance at the precipice. The majority knows Biden and the Left is attempting the greatest Heist of our History.”

Such messages landed Ms Thomas in front of the congressional January 6 committee, where she denied exerting any improper influence over her husband’s work at the Supreme Court.

It’s not the first time Ms Thomas’s work as a conservative activist has raised eyebrows.

In 2011, Justice Thomas, under scrutiny from watchdog groups, updated years of disclosure forms to include the fact that Ms Thomas, a conservative activist, earned more then $686,000 in income from the right-leaning Heritage Foundation between 2003 and 2007, a discrepancy Mr Thomas attributed to “a misunderstanding of filing instructions.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and his Million-Dollar Headhunter Wife

Jane Roberts, wife of Chief Justice John Roberts, has also come in for scrutiny for her business activities.

Between 2007 and 2014, she made more than $10m working as a legal recruiter, matching attorneys with top firms, at least one of which argued before her husband, Insider reports, citing information from a whistleblower complaint. The windfall made her one of the highest-paid legal recruiters in the country at the time.

"When I found out that the spouse of the chief justice was soliciting business from law firms, I knew immediately that it was wrong," the whistleblower, former colleague Kendal B Price, told Insider. "During the time I was there, I was discouraged from ever raising the issue. And I realized that even the law firms who were Jane’s clients had nowhere to go. They were being asked by the spouse of the chief justice for business worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and there was no one to complain to. Most of these firms were likely appearing or seeking to appear before the Supreme Court. It’s natural that they’d do anything they felt was necessary to be competitive."

Ms Roberts’s firm at the time said in a statement to the outlet she maintained "the highest standards: Candidate confidentiality, client trust, and professionalism."

An unprecedented leak

In May of 2022, the Supreme Court found itself in an unprecedented position: investigating a leak. Somehow, a copy of a draft opinion that would form the basis of the court’s eventual decision to overrule Roe v Wade and abolish the constitutional right to an abortion became public. It was a massive breach of court norms, where the justices, who have lifelong tenure, pride themselves on collegiality and discretion.

Officials have been investigating the source of the leak, including interviewing high court law clerks, ever since.

Sexual harassment

Other scandals imperiling the court’s credibility have had to do with the alleged conduct of justices before they were appointed to the nation’s top bench.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh was accused by three women of sexually assaulting them or others before his confirmation, and Justice Thomas was accused during his confirmation process in 1991 of harassing Anita Hill while she worked under him at the US Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Both men denied the allegations.

Impartial advocates or partisan appointees?

Outside of their personal conduct, Supreme Court justices have come in for criticism for their ties to legal advocacy organisations like the conservative Federalist Society, which has spent decades and millions of dollars building a pipeline of ideologically aligned recruits for the federal judiciary.

All of the court’s six current right-leaning justices have ties to the organisation,  which played an outsized role under the Trump administration supplying candidates for judicial nominations in districts across the country.

During one Federalist gathering, Justice Samuel Alito openly complained about the advance of liberal values, a seeming affront to the high court’s self-styled representation as a court above the fray of politics.

“You can’t say that marriage is a union between one man and one woman,” Justice Alito said. “Until very recently that’s what the vast majority of Americans thought. Now it’s considered bigotry.”

A Justice who would ‘do anything if you take him hunting’

Clarence Thomas isn’t the only high court judge who has come under scrutiny for his lavish travel and elbow-rubbing with the conservative elite.

Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016 while at an $800-a-night hunting lodge in Texas, took as many as 85 undisclosed hunting and fishing trips during his tenure, often in the company of conservative donors, politicians, and people with business before the Supreme Court, Slate reports.

His reputation for such jaunts was so notorious that Texas lawyer and GOP donor Mark Lanier said he heard Justice Scalia would “do anything if you take him hunting”. The attorney later took Justice Scalia on a charter plane to a private boar hunting ranch after the jurist gave a speech at Texas tech.

A cushy relationship with the press

For decades, radio listeners have been turning to the legal affairs reporting of Nina Totenberg, who has long chronicled the Supreme Court for NPR.

They were shocked to find out, once Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, that Ms Totenberg had a decades-long friendship with the liberal stalwart, a fact that wasn’t acknowledged in NPR coverage, but was the subject of the reporter’s memoir, Dinners with Ruth.

The broadcaster’s public editor later concluded “the closeness of that Totenberg-Ginsburg relationship was never fully disclosed, and raises the question of whether journalistic independence — also vital to NPR consumers — was as solid as listeners have a right to expect.”

Confirmation, or confirmation bias?

Another area where critics see room for reform is the Supreme Court confirmation process.

Republicans famously refused to consider Barrack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland in 2016 after the death of Scalia, arguing such an appointment would be inappropriate during an election year.

Four years later, when Justice Ginsburg died, Amy Coney Barrett was appointed about a week before election day.

Conservatives have their gripes about the process as well.

Reagan nominee Robert Bork was so famously torn apart — in television ads, in speeches from senators – in his failed nomination bid that getting “Bork-ed” is now a Washington verb for the total destruction of one’s reputation in public.