A Thursday report that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas accepted luxury travel and hospitality perks from a billionaire Republican donor was met with both renewed criticism of how the justices self-police and renewed calls for oversight and the impeachment of the embattled conservative.
The controversy was touched off by a ProPublica story describing how Thomas and his wife, Ginni, a conservative activist, were treated to high-end vacations and private jet travel subsidized by Dallas-based businessman Harlan Crow, who has a record of contributing millions to Republican candidates and causes.
Thomas did not report the gifts on his annual financial disclosure filings, according to ProPublica -- an omission that ethics experts say violates a code of conduct for federal officials.
In a statement on Friday, however, Thomas maintained that his understanding was that "this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable."
"I have endeavored to follow that counsel throughout my tenure, and have always sought to comply with the disclosure guidelines. These guidelines are now being changed, as the committee of the Judicial Conference responsible for financial disclosure for the entire federal judiciary just this past month announced new guidance. And, it is, of course, my intent to follow this guidance in the future," Thomas said.
The Supreme Court and its counsel did not respond to ABC News' questions about the apparent disclosure oversight and whether Thomas' reports will be retroactively amended.
As Thomas noted, Crow is not said to have any direct connection to business before the court and no apparent alleged conflict of interest on that level, but he is deeply connected to GOP politics and, according to ProPublica's reporting, regularly includes conservative power players in gatherings with Thomas.
While Supreme Court justices are expected to follow a federal judicial code of ethics, there is no requirement that they do so and no independent oversight of compliance.
In his own statement, Crow insisted he "never" spoke with Thomas about a Supreme Court case. But that hasn't stopped the criticism, largely from the left and from advocates for judicial reform.
"If the information in this report is correct … and if the point of the United States judiciary is still to neutrally interpret and uphold the law, then it is obvious what should happen next," Jeff Hauser, executive director of the progressive group Revolving Door Project, said in a statement. "The House of Representatives must immediately draw articles of impeachment against Justice Clarence Thomas."
Some progressive lawmakers have joined in pushing for Thomas' removal. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., wrote on Twitter that "this degree of corruption is shocking - almost cartoonish. Thomas must be impeached."
Only one Supreme Court justice in the country's history has been impeached: Samuel Chase, in 1804, for allegedly refusing to dismiss biased jurors from a politically sensitive case. Political realities in 2023 cast doubt on the likelihood of a similar fate for Thomas, with Republicans now in control of the House. Beyond impeachment, a trial in the Senate, currently held 51-49 by Democrats, would require more than a dozen conservatives to join in voting against Thomas.
The justice has long attracted scrutiny for his close ties with Republican political figures and has faced unreported financial engagements in the past. But the new ProPublica report, which examined 20 years' worth of unreported gifts, broke new ground.
According to ProPublica, Crow bankrolled transportation and accommodations for Thomas and his wife to far-flung destinations like Indonesia and New Zealand. These vacations and others to Crow's own properties reportedly included lavish trimmings, including use of billionaire's private jet, yacht and chef.
Crow, a prolific Republican donor who amassed a fortune in real estate, has given tens of millions of dollars to various Republican candidates and political groups at the federal level, according to public campaign finance databases. He has been a particularly generous donor to super PACs linked to Republican leadership in Congress, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on those groups almost every election cycle.
In his statement to ABC News, Crow acknowledged his friendship with the Thomases but denied any implication that his behavior amounted to anything more than "a gathering of friends."
"Justice Thomas and Ginni never asked for any of this hospitality," Crow said. "We have never asked about a pending or lower court case, and Justice Thomas has never discussed one, and we have never sought to influence Justice Thomas on any legal or political issue."
Thomas likewise described Crow and his wife, Kathy, as "among our dearest friends, and we have been friends for over twenty-five years. As friends do, we have joined them on a number of family trips during the more than quarter century we have known them."
Other voices stopped short of calling for Thomas' impeachment, instead using ProPublica's reporting as an opportunity to call attention to the lax rules governing Supreme Court justices' personal conduct.
Gabe Roth, executive director of the nonpartisan watchdog group Fix the Court, said ProPublica's findings highlight a troubling reality: "The Supreme Court is the least accountable part of our government."
Roth and others have advocated for legislation imposing stricter guidelines on financial disclosures and other mechanisms to ensure sufficient oversight of justices who wield broad power to check presidential and congressional authority and, unlike other branches of government, serve lifetime terms.
Congressional Democrats have for years been trying to pass legislation that would implement an enforceable code of conduct on the nine justices. In the wake of the ProPublica story, Senate Democrats once urged passage of the Supreme Court Ethics Act, which has been sponsored by Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy every year in Congress for more than a decade.
Later Thursday, the White House declined to weigh in. "There are other bodies of government that should be dealing with this," press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.
Illinois' Dick Durbin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, characterized Thomas' behavior as "simply inconsistent with the ethical standards the American people expect of any public servant, let alone a Justice on the Supreme Court."
"The Pro Publica report is a call to action," Durbin said in a statement on Thursday, "and the Senate Judiciary Committee will act."
ABC News' Justin Gomez, Soo Rin Kim Allison Pecorin contributed to this report.