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What the Justice Clarence Thomas scandal says about ethics on the Supreme Court

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

We start today with what ethics experts are calling a double standard for Supreme Court justices. The highest court in the country does not have a code of ethics. And with recent news that Justice Clarence Thomas failed to disclose multiple gifts and transactions, that lack of guiding principles is raising scrutiny. That's because federal workers do face a lot of rules and regulations on and off the job. Here to help us understand this is NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So let's start with the basics. What are the ethics rules that federal workers have to follow, and how is that different from Supreme Court justices?

MONTANARO: Well, there's a lot of them, and they're slightly different across different agencies. You know, the Office of Government Ethics oversees ethical standards for all of the executive branch's employees. And we're talking about everyone from census workers up to the president of the United States. They have 14 guiding general principles that they put forth. And first is employees being expected to, quote, "place a loyalty to the Constitution, the laws and ethical principles above private gain." The Supreme Court, though, as you said, has no such guiding principles. There's no ethics code. But the nine justices are required by the same ethics law to submit public financial disclosures. That includes gifts over a few hundred dollars. If they don't, they can face criminal charges or stiff civil penalties. And that's where watchdogs come in and who are raising, you know, major questions about Justice Clarence Thomas.

DETROW: OK. So let's recap here. Thomas did not disclose gifts of luxury vacations, overnight stays, trips on a private jet - all of these certainly worth more than a few hundred dollars. These all came from a conservative billionaire over the course of many, many years. So is there any talk of these criminal or civil penalties?

MONTANARO: It's complicated. Two nonpartisan watchdog groups who I talked to this week, the Project on Government Oversight and the Campaign Legal Center, both believe there's enough evidence to do so. They've written actually long letters urging the Department of Justice to pursue action. They say that even if Thomas was found guilty civilly and wasn't pursued criminally, he could face penalties that reach close to a million dollars. That's because there's a more than $70,000 penalty for each omission if left out purposefully. And each vacation, there could be multiple violations. Over years, that adds up pretty fast.

DETROW: Yeah.

MONTANARO: But they're not confident Thomas is going to face any consequences, and that's because of what they see as a double standard, one for the high profile and well-connected, another for everyone else. Here's Walter Shaub, who used to run the Office of Government Oversight and is now a senior fellow at the Project on Government Oversight.

WALTER SHAUB: The Department of Justice has shown a real unwillingness to hold the top officials in government to the same standard it holds lower-level officials to. And if you think about it, that's government ethics standing on its head, because the higher up you go and the more power you have to do harm, the more you should be held accountable because the stakes are so much greater.

MONTANARO: And that's the point that, you know, Shaub really is stressing here, who was head of Office of Government Ethics. You know, for his part, Thomas says that he didn't know he had to disclose these gifts because they're from someone he calls a personal friend, but he'll do so in the future. Now, these watchdog groups don't buy that. They point to the fact that Thomas used to declare these kinds of gifts for years until a 2004 LA Times article spotlighted the depths of Thomas's gifts that were more than almost any other justice.

DETROW: And real quick, any action in Congress that's important to look at here?

MONTANARO: You know, it's unlikely. Democratic Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin has asked Chief Justice John Roberts to testify early next month. Republicans not going along to pressure him.

DETROW: That's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.