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Now-released forms reveal more trips gifted to Justice Clarence Thomas by Harlan Crow

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, left, talks to Chief Justice John Roberts during the formal group photograph at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 7, 2022.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, left, talks to Chief Justice John Roberts during the formal group photograph at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 7, 2022.

Updated September 1, 2023 at 10:33 AM ET

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas released his 2022 financial disclosure form Thursday, providing new information about three trips last year on a private jet owned by billionaire Harlan Crow, a Thomas friend and GOP mega-donor. The Thomas report, and one from by Justice Samuel Alito, was filed three months after the seven other justices filed their disclosure forms, and after Thomas and Alito were granted extensions.

The filing was much awaited in the wake of a slew of reports by ProPublica and other news organizations this year about Thomas' relationship with Crow and with other billionaire conservatives who have provided him all sorts of benefits from luxury travel to financing a loan for a high-end RV.

But neither the Thomas nor Alito filings provided much information about benefits received in previous years.

The Thomas filing did provide some justifications, or explanations, for some of the private jet travel, and though the form released on Thursday covers only 2022, it seeks, through the back door, to justify other benefits that Thomas received from Crow in prior years.

The front door--the 2022 form--discloses the three private jet trips. Thomas reports that one came after he had gone to Dallas to be the keynote speaker at an event sponsored by the conservative American Enterprise Institute and that he flew back on Crow's jet "due to an unexpected ice storm." The talk was rescheduled for May, and this time he took a roundtrip on Crow's private jet because of "increased security" concerns following the leak of the court's abortion opinion. The third trip on Crow's jet was to and from Crow's estate in the Adirondacks for a vacation, where meals and entertainment were also provided.

"This is only sort of a half answer that we get today from Justice Thomas," said Gabe Roth of Fix The Court, a watchdog group that focuses on the federal courts. "We know some of the private plane trips that he took in 2022, but he does not go back and list any of the trips that he took via private plane, via yacht, via helicopter that should have been reported in previous years."

Nor did Thomas disclose the other benefits conferred on him by other conservative billionaires over the years, and there is every indication that the justice will not go back and amend previous reports to disclose such benefits.

Rather, he uses his 2022 form to justify omissions that have come to light about his filings in prior years. In one section of the 2022 form, for instance, Thomas seeks to explain his failure to report Crow's purchase of a home that Thomas owned in Savannah, Ga. — a home where his mother still lives. That purchase was in 2014, and was not disclosed, an omission that Thomas calls "inadvertent." He says he didn't realized it had to be disclosed as a real estate transaction because he and his wife had made improvements to the home over the years, and that therefore the transaction amounted to a "capital loss." Just what investment in a home has to do with disclosing the sale of the home remains unclear.

But the fact that he has taken the occasion of the 2022 filing to explain his 2014 failure to disclose would seem to indicate he is not going to systematically go back and amend earlier filings. Further evidence of that is that he also reports on the 2022 filing several bank accounts and a life insurance policy that were "inadvertently," omitted in his 2017, 2018, and 2019 filings, each of which he says earned less than $2,500 in interest.

So what is his justification for reporting the Crow plane trips, and luxury vacation in 2022 but not in the past?

Thomas maintains that until this year, when the Judicial Conference clarified the rule on personal hospitality, the guidance provided by the Administrative Office of the U.S. courts was that judges did not have to disclose private transportation or luxury trips extended by personal friends. Or as Thomas put it in Monday's filing, "Filer is not aware of anything in the Judicial Conference regulation issued for more than 30 years or in any advice provided by the Judicial Conference to judges that is inconsistent with this position."

Translation: This was my understanding, he says, and there is no evidence I was wrong.

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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.