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A brief timeline of Clarence Thomas’s ethics questions

All the major events, year by year

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas appears at the swearing-in of fellow Justice Amy Coney Barrett in late 2020. (Jonathan Newton /The Washington Post/file)
8 min

This post has been updated.

Yet more reporting Thursday highlighted growing ethics issues surrounding Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas: ProPublica reported on another previously undisclosed benefit Thomas received from billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow, and The Washington Post reported that a key Thomas ally sought to hide payments to Thomas’s wife.

ProPublica reported that Crow paid $6,200 in monthly private boarding school tuition for Thomas’s grandnephew, whom Thomas had custody of since the child was 6 and raised as a son. While the total amount isn’t clear, it calculated it could be more than $150,000.

A friend of Thomas’s, Mark Paoletta, said in a statement Thursday that Thomas didn’t have to disclose the tuition because Thomas’s grandnephew didn’t meet the relevant ethics law’s definition of “dependent child.” ProPublica cited experts who said the payments should have been disclosed because they were essentially gifts to Thomas.

Regardless, this disclosure adds to a growing tab of Thomas-related spending by Crow that stretches into the millions. Crow has reportedly spent money on numerous luxury trips for Thomas, on Thomas’s wife’s political group, on Thomas’s mother’s house, on his grandnephew’s boarding school, and on library and museum projects around where Thomas grew up. In each case, these things were obscured before someone unearthed them.

What the new reporting also adds is another example of something Thomas once disclosed but then decided not to — even as questions about his disclosures have followed him for years.

Then, late Thursday, The Post reported that prominent conservative judicial activist and Thomas family ally Leonard Leo in 2012 directed that Thomas’s wife, conservative activist Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, be paid $25,000 but that the paperwork should have “No mention of Ginni, of course.” The money was billed to a nonprofit Leo advised, which that year filed a brief to the Supreme Court, raising questions about whether a potential conflict of interest was deliberately hidden.

It’s a lot to sort through, and the timeline is important. Below is what we know so far about not just these matters, but other ethics questions that have followed Thomas.

1991: Thomas is confirmed as a Supreme Court justice after contentious hearings featuring allegations of sexual harassment from Anita Hill.

1996: Crow meets Thomas for the first time in Washington and invites him on a private flight back to Dallas, according to a recent interview given by Crow. (Thomas was due to speak at an event in the area.) The two men bonded on the plane, Crow said.

1997: Thomas flies on Crow’s private jet to the Bohemian Grove in Monte Rio, Calif., an exclusive all-male retreat. Thomas discloses the trip.

2001: Thomas accepts a gift from Crow of Frederick Douglass’s Bible, valued at $19,000. He also receives a $15,000 bust of Abraham Lincoln from the American Enterprise Institute, where Crow serves as a trustee. Thomas again discloses both.

That same year, Crow donates $175,000 to a library in Savannah, Ga., for a project built in honor of Thomas. Crow initially wants the library renamed for Thomas, but settles for naming a wing after him. The gift is initially anonymous, but it is later made public amid an outcry by Black leaders who criticized Thomas.

While speaking about his effort to gain custody of his grandnephew, Thomas becomes emotional. “The job is not worth doing for what they pay,” he says. “The job is not worth doing for the grief. But it is worth doing for the principle.”

2002: Thomas discloses $5,000 that two friends, Earl and Louise Dixon, paid for his grandnephew’s education.

2004: The Los Angeles Times reports on the pricey gifts and private travel from Crow, citing Thomas’s disclosures. In the years that followed, Thomas would continue to accept Crow’s largesse, but he would stop disclosing it, except for one gift in 2015.

2008: Thomas begins sending his grandnephew to Hidden Lake Academy, a private boarding school in Georgia. Records from 2009 show Crow paid his $6,200 monthly tuition. A former administrator later told ProPublica that Crow paid for tuition for the grandnephew’s entire year-long stay at the school, and that Crow said he paid for tuition at a different boarding school both before and after Hidden Lake. If true, it could have cost more than $150,000 over four years, ProPublica reported. Despite disclosing the earlier education gift from friends, Thomas doesn’t disclose these.

Crow purchases a seafood cannery in Thomas’s hometown of Pin Point, Ga., ultimately spending millions on a project to restore it and add a heritage museum. The New York Times later reports this was a “pet project” of Thomas’s, and that Thomas connected Crow to the cannery’s owner. The purchase remains murky until the 2011 Times piece, with the former owner saying he was told not to identify Crow as the purchaser.

2009: Crow reportedly gives $500,000 to a conservative political nonprofit started by Ginni Thomas, called Liberty Central. The gift is initially anonymous, but Politico ties it to Crow in 2011. Ginni Thomas drew $120,000 in salary from the group in 2010.

January 2010: A 5-4 Supreme Court majority, including Thomas, strikes down long-standing campaign finance restrictions in the landmark Citizens United v. FEC case. The decision allows unlimited spending by outside groups. Ginni Thomas soon says Liberty Central will accept corporate contributions.

October-November 2010: Shortly after a New York Times story mentioning Liberty Central amid potential conflicts of interest with her husband, Ginni Thomas leaves the group, which cited “distractions.”

January 2011: The watchdog group Common Cause argues that Justice Thomas should have recused himself from Citizens United, in part because of his wife’s potential benefit.

Thomas amends financial disclosure reports for the previous 13 years, after the same watchdog notes that he had failed to disclose his wife’s employers. Thomas says the information was “inadvertently omitted due to a misunderstanding of the filing instructions.”

June 2011: The New York Times again details Crow’s lavish, Thomas-related spending and gifts, focusing on the museum. It notes Thomas has not disclosed any benefits from Crow since 2004, but that travel records for Crow’s planes and yachts indicate Thomas “may have used them in recent years.”

October 2011: Thomas attends the dedication of the museum, calling Crow a “good man” while acknowledging Crow’s motives have been questioned.

January 2012: Leo, a co-founder of Liberty Central with Ginni Thomas, instructs Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway to bill a nonprofit group he advises and “give” Ginni Thomas “another $25K.” He says the paperwork should include “No mention of Ginni, of course.” Later that same year, the nonprofit, the Judicial Education Project, would file a brief with the Supreme Court in a landmark case, Shelby County v. Holder. Justice Thomas would side with the Judicial Education Project’s position in a 5-4 decision. (Part of Thomas’s defense in the case of Crow’s largesse has been that Crow didn’t have direct business before the court.)

2014: Thomas sells three pieces of property he co-owns to Crow, including his mother’s house. Despite the law making pretty clear that such real estate sales must be disclosed, Thomas doesn’t do so. Thomas’s mother reportedly still lives in the home Crow now owns.

2015: Thomas discloses a gift from Crow — a $6,484.12 bust of Douglass.

2018: Crow donates $105,000 to Yale Law School for a portrait of Thomas.

June 2019 (and surrounding years): Thomas accepts a trip to Malaysia including private airfare and a superyacht from Crow, which ProPublica later values at more than $500,000. It is one of many luxury trips Thomas accepted from Crow “virtually every year,” the outlet recently reported. Thomas does not disclose these trips, as he did the 1997 trip to the Bohemian Grove.

November 2020-January 2021: Ginni Thomas exchanges text messages with Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, strategizing about efforts to overturn Trump’s election loss. In the texts, she mentions outreach to “Jared,” potentially fellow White House official and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. She also attends a “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

December 2021: Ginni Thomas signs a public letter sharply criticizing the Jan. 6 committee.

January 2022: Justice Thomas provides the only dissenting voice as the Supreme Court grants the Jan. 6 committee access to Trump White House records. When details of Ginni Thomas’s post-2020 work with the White House come to light, some experts argue he should have recused himself from such Jan. 6-related cases. While the Meadows texts were turned over separately from the court’s decision, the experts say it raises the prospect of Justice Thomas potentially voting to shield his own wife’s communications with the White House and to protect her allies in efforts to overturn the election.