On Monday, January 22, 2024, Slate reported that there is currently an ongoing ethics review of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas by the Judicial Conference of the United States.
The Judicial Conference, which oversees ethics for federal judges including Supreme Court justices, noted in a recently released report that it was examining “public written allegations of errors or omissions” in financial disclosure reports. Based on this vague statement, it is believed the subject of this review is Justice Thomas.
For background, in 2011 and 2012, Justice Thomas faced accusations that he failed to properly disclose the income his wife received from conservative organizations on his financial disclosure forms. However, the Judicial Conference did not take any visible action in response to letters sent about the issue.
In 2023, ProPublica published an investigative series detailing many expensive gifts and trips Justice Thomas and his wife accepted free of charge over the years from political donors, raising major ethics concerns. In response, Democratic Senators wrote to the Judicial Conference urging them to refer Justice Thomas to the Attorney General for potentially violating financial disclosure laws.
The start of an apparent review into Justice Thomas’ conduct represents a departure from the Judicial Conference’s past handling of complaints about the Justice. Previously, staff have been accused of keeping information about submitted complaints from the full membership of the Conference. Former Reagan-appointed judge Mark Wolf said when he was at the Conference in 2012, he did not receive notice of the letters concerning Justice Thomas.
While an ethics review of a Supreme Court Justice is rare, the fact one is now taking place signals it was difficult to ignore the most recent allegations given their extensive documentation by ProPublica. However, observers note the Judicial Conference has historically acted as a deferential arm of the Supreme Court that downplays or covers up scandals. It remains to be seen if this inquiry will have any substantive outcome or be another whitewash.