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THE NATION

Justice Thomas Reports Wealth of Gifts

In the last six years he has accepted free items valued at $42,200, the most on the high court.

December 31, 2004|Richard A. Serrano and David G. Savage | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — 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.

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