Five House Democrats led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York wrote to the US attorney general, Merrick Garland, to demand a federal investigation of the conservative supreme court justice Clarence Thomas, over his acceptance of undeclared gifts from billionaire rightwing donors.
“We write to urge the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into … Clarence Thomas for consistently failing to report significant gifts he received from Harlan Crow and other billionaires for nearly two decades in defiance of his duty under federal law,” the Democrats said.
As well as Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive popularly known as AOC, the letter was signed by Jerrold Nadler of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House judiciary committee; Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a professor of constitutional law; Ted Lieu of California; and Hank Johnson of Georgia.
This week saw the publication of a bombshell ProPublica report which said Thomas had taken 38 undeclared vacations funded by billionaires and accepted gifts including expensive sports tickets.
The report followed extensive reporting by ProPublica and other outlets including the New York Times regarding Thomas’s close and financially beneficial relationships with Crow, a real-estate magnate, and other influential businessmen.
Thomas, 75, denies wrongdoing, claiming never to have discussed with his benefactors politics or business before the court. He has said he did not declare those benefactors’ gifts, over many years, because he was wrongly advised.
Ethics experts say that Thomas broke federal law by failing to declare such largesse.
Supreme court justices are nominally subject to the same ethics rules as all federal justices but in practice govern themselves.
The chief justice, John Roberts, has rebuffed requests for testimony in Congress. Democrats on the Senate judiciary committee have advanced supreme court ethics reform but it will almost certainly fail, in the face of Republican opposition.
Calls for Thomas to resign or be impeached and removed have proliferated but are also almost certain to fail. Confirmed in 1991, Thomas is the most senior of six conservatives on a nine-member court tipped dramatically right by three justices installed during the presidency of Donald Trump.
In their letter to Garland on Friday, Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow Democrats noted that Thomas’s wife, Ginni Thomas, is “a far-right activist who often champions conservative causes that come before the court”.
They were addressing, they said, “a matter of critical importance to the integrity of our justice system”.
Outlining reporting about Thomas, the representatives said his “consistent failure to disclose gifts and benefits from industry magnates and wealthy, politically active executives highlights a blatant disregard for judicial ethics as well as apparent legal violations.
“No individual, regardless of their position or stature, should be exempt from legal scrutiny for lawbreaking … as a supreme court justice and high constitutional officer, Justice Thomas should be held to the highest standard, not the lowest and he certainly shouldn’t be allowed to violate federal law.”
Refusing to hold Thomas accountable, the Democrats said, “would set a dangerous precedent, undermining public trust in our institutions and raising legitimate questions about the equal application of laws in our nation.
“The Department of Justice must undertake a thorough investigation into the reported conduct to ensure that it cannot happen again.”