Justice Clarence Thomas, in his annual financial disclosure form released Thursday, responded in detail to reports that he had failed to disclose luxury trips, flights on a private jet and a real estate transaction with a Texas billionaire.
In an unusual move, the justice included a statement defending his travel with the billionaire, Harlan Crow, who has donated to conservative causes, and amended earlier forms that had “inadvertently omitted” information. Although Justice Thomas reported three trips taken over the past year on Mr. Crow’s private jet, the first time in nearly two decades that he has disclosed such gifts and travel, the form did not appear to be comprehensive.
The acknowledgment comes as the Supreme Court faces increased scrutiny about the justices’ financial dealings after a series of reports have underlined what few disclosure requirements are in place and how compliance is often left to the justices themselves. Lawmakers have renewed their calls for a stricter ethics code after revelations that Justices Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. had accompanied billionaires on lavish vacations but did not report the trips. Although the justices, like other federal judges, are required to file annual reports that document their investments, gifts and travel, they are not subject to binding ethics rules.
In his disclosure, Justice Thomas addressed his decision to fly on Mr. Crow’s private jet on one occasion, suggesting that he had been advised to avoid commercial travel after the leak of the draft opinion eliminating a constitutional right to an abortion.
“Because of the increased security risk following the Dobbs opinion leak, the May flights were by private plane for official travel as filer’s security detail recommended noncommercial travel whenever possible,” Justice Thomas wrote.
A court spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether the justices have been encouraged to fly on private jets after the leak of the draft decision. Justice Thomas first reported private jet travel in the 1990s, and even as those disclosures dropped off by the mid-2000s, he has continued such travel over decades.
The nature of Justice Thomas’s decades-long relationship with Mr. Crow in particular has elicited questions after ProPublica described the extent of his generosity and the justice’s failure to disclose it. Mr. Crow treated the justice to a series of lavish trips, including flights on his private jet, island-hopping on his yacht and vacations at his estate in the Adirondacks. Mr. Crow also bought the justice’s mother’s home in Savannah, Ga., and covered a portion of private school tuition for the justice’s great-nephew, whom he was raising.
Justice Alito, for his part, acknowledged in June that he had taken a flight on a private plane provided by Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire, during a vacation in 2008 to a luxury fishing lodge in Alaska. In the years that followed, Mr. Singer repeatedly had business before the court.
Both justices have insisted that those gifts and travels did not need to be reported at the time.
Justice Alito, defending his actions in The Wall Street Journal, wrote that he was not required to report the trip because “justices commonly interpreted this discussion of ‘hospitality’ to mean that accommodations and transportation for social events were not reportable gifts.” Moreover, he added, the private flight was “transportation for a purely social event.”
In March, the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policymaking body for the federal courts, announced a change in the rules for reporting gifts and travel, including requiring disclosure of flights by private jet.
Under the previous rules, Justice Thomas wrote in his report, he had been advised that he did not need to disclose “gifts received as the personal hospitality of any individual.”
Justice Thomas added that he had “adhered to the then existing judicial regulations as his colleagues had done, both in practice and in consultation with the Judicial Conference.”
But he said he had sought a lawyer’s guidance and “continues to work with Supreme Court officials and the committee staff for guidance on whether he should further amend his reports from any prior years.”
Still, Justice Thomas left unaddressed other largess he has received.
Besides Mr. Crow, other wealthy friends who have hosted Justice Thomas include David L. Sokol, the former heir apparent to Berkshire Hathaway. Another, Anthony Welters, underwrote, at least in part, the $267,230 purchase of the justice’s motor coach, a 40-foot Prevost Marathon that he has said allows him to slip away from the “meanness that you see in Washington.”
Neither Mr. Crow’s payment of private school tuition for the justice’s great-nephew nor Justice Thomas’s motor coach are mentioned in his disclosure form.
Justice Thomas also acknowledged errors in his previous financial reports, including personal bank accounts, a life insurance policy for his wife, Virginia Thomas, and the name of a real estate holding for Ms. Thomas’s family. In reporting the real estate deal with Mr. Crow, Justice Thomas wrote that he had “inadvertently failed to realize” that the transaction, a sale of a single-family home and two vacant lots on a quiet street in Savannah in 2014, needed to be reported.
Of the four trips Justice Thomas listed in 2022, the year covered by the form, three were speaking engagements. The return leg of one required private travel, the justice said, because of an “unexpected ice storm.” The fourth, from July 2022, was to Mr. Crow’s estate in the Adirondacks.
Justice Thomas’s lawyer, Elliot S. Berke, said in a statement on Thursday that he had reviewed the justice’s records and was “confident there has been no willful ethics transgression, and any prior reporting errors were strictly inadvertent.”
Mr. Berke accused “left-wing ‘watchdog’ groups” of attacking the justice for “alleged ethical violations largely stemming from his relationships with personal friends who happen to be wealthy,” adding that he viewed the criticisms as “a terrible precedent for political blood sport through federal ethics filings.”
In recent months, lawmakers have intensified their calls to create an ethics code, including a proposal by Senate Democrats and the testimony of ethics experts before Congress.
“This late-come effort at ‘cleanup on Aisle 3’ won’t deter us from fully investigating the massive, secret, right-wing billionaire influence” on the court, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who has long pushed for reform, said in a statement.
It remains unclear whether the justices will move to overhaul ethics rules.
“It’s not a secret for me to say that we have been discussing this issue,” Justice Elena Kagan said at a judicial conference in Portland, Ore., in August. “And it won’t be a surprise to know that the nine of us have a variety of views about this, as about most things.”
Some advocates pushing for increased transparency on the court said that Justice Thomas’s disclosure form fell short, pointing to several gifts and trips that have surfaced in news reports that remain unmentioned.
“Justice Thomas’s lengthy explanation as to why he omitted various gifts and free trips on previous disclosures does not countermand his decades of willful obfuscation when it comes to his reporting requirements,” said Gabe Roth, the executive director of Fix the Court, an organization critical of the court’s transparency.
In his report, Justice Alito did not include any detailed statement or cite a reason for the delay. He listed several teaching engagements, including $15,000 to teach at Duke University School of Law. He also disclosed a trip to Italy in July 2022 for a Religious Liberty Summit hosted by Notre Dame Law School.
The trip drew headlines because it was Justice Alito’s first public appearance since the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, where he wrote the majority opinion. In a speech, he spoke sarcastically of foreign leaders who had criticized the ruling.
Jo Becker contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.