By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been treated to far more luxury vacations and exclusive perks from wealthy patrons than previously known, news organization ProPublica reported on Thursday, raising more questions about the lack of binding ethical standards at the court.

ProPublica found that since he was appointed to the court in 1991, Thomas has received gifts from benefactors including at least 38 destination vacations, 34 flights by private jet or helicopter, a dozen VIP passes to sporting events including in a skybox, stays at resorts in Florida and Jamaica and a standing invitation to high-end golf club.

At least twice, the late billionaire businessman Wayne Huizenga sent his personal 737 jet to pick Thomas up and bring him to South Florida, ProPublica reported.

Thomas, one of the nine-member court’s six conservative justices, has already faced scrutiny since ProPublica in May reported that he failed to publicly disclose luxury trips he accepted over decades from Dallas billionaire businessman and Republican donor Harlan Crow, as well as a real estate transaction involving the justice’s mother’s house.

Unlike other members of the federal judiciary, the life-tenured justices have no binding ethics code of conduct, though they are subject to certain financial disclosure laws.

Following revelations about Thomas and other justices in recent months, the Senate Judiciary Committee last month approved and sent to the full Senate a Democratic-backed bill that would mandate a binding ethics code for the justices. Given Republican opposition, the bill has little chance of becoming law.

The court is already facing low public approval, in particular after last year’s decision to end its recognition of a constitutional right to abortion by overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

The court has drawn criticism from liberals and praise from conservatives for its push to the right, also by expanding gun rights last year and in June rejecting affirmative action collegiate admissions policies often used to increase Black and Hispanic student enrollment.

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee have urged Chief Justice John Roberts to ensure that conservative Justice Samuel Alito recuses in any future case concerning congressional legislation to regulates the court, after Alito last month told the Wall Street Journal’s opinion section: “No provision in the Constitution gives them the authority to regulate the Supreme Court – period.”

ProPublica previously reported that Alito failed to disclose a 2008 trip to Alaska on a private jet belonging to a billionaire hedge fund manager whose business interests have come before the court.

Food and other “personal hospitality” such as lodging at an individual’s residence is generally exempt from disclosure, although the Judicial Conference, the policymaking body for the broader federal judiciary, has tightened its regulations related to the exemption, including requiring transport by private jet to be disclosed.

In June, while seven of the justices filed their mandatory annual financial report disclosing outside income and gifts from 2022, as required for certain senior government officials, Thomas and Alito were granted extensions of up to 90 days.

At an event in May, Roberts said the court is considering steps to “adhere to the highest standards of conduct.”

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)



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