(Bloomberg) -- A federal judge who raised concerns more than a decade ago about how ethics complaints against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas were handled testified Wednesday in the US Senate, sharing new details about the events, including Chief Justice John Roberts’s role.
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US District Judge Mark Wolf of Massachusetts was a member of the Judicial Conference – the US court system’s leadership body – in 2011 and 2012, when Democrats in Congress and advocacy groups accused Thomas of violating financial reporting rules.
On Wednesday, Wolf described to a Senate subcommittee concerns he had raised that the judiciary panel that enforces financial disclosure rules hadn’t notified the conference leadership about complaints that Thomas failed to report years of income earned by his wife Ginni Thomas and apparent undisclosed travel with billionaire Harlan Crow. The committee concluded there weren’t grounds to make a referral to the Justice Department for further investigation.
Wolf told senators his concern was that federal law obligated the Judicial Conference to refer matters to the Justice Department if there was “reasonable cause” to believe someone “willfully” violated the rules, but members weren’t given an opportunity to consider if that was necessary.
Federal ethics law “only serves its vital purpose if the conference understands and properly performs its role,” Wolf said. “I believe that in 2011 and 2012, it did not.”
Bloomberg News previously reported on Wolf’s protest. His testimony included new information about the timeline. He said the Judicial Conference’s executive committee initially denied his request to put the Thomas matter on the agenda when the conference met in September 2012, so he moved to do so on his own.
Wolf said he “hoped to generate discussion” by explaining his concerns at the meeting. But he said that once he finished speaking, Roberts – who serves as the conference’s presiding officer – “immediately” called on another member who successfully moved to table discussion pending further consideration by the disclosure committee. Wolf’s term on the conference ended by group’s next meeting in March 2013, and there was no further discussion.
An earlier statement from the Supreme Court indicated Roberts learned of Wolf’s concerns about the Thomas complaints the day before the conference met and invited discussion at the meeting. According to the statement, Roberts didn’t vote on the motion to postpone discussion, since he only votes to break ties.
A judiciary official sent a letter this week to Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island, saying the disclosure committee had gone beyond what was required to vet the Thomas complaints, that Judicial Conference members were later sent details of that process and that no conference member raised additional concerns. In response to a request for comment Wednesday, a judiciary spokesperson referred to the earlier letter.
The disclosure committee also adopted a new policy to notify the Judicial Conference about future “written public allegations of willful misconduct.”
Wolf was the only witness on Wednesday. The Judicial Conference was not asked to participate, according to Meaghan McCabe, a spokesperson for Whitehouse, who chairs the Senate Judiciary subcommittee that held the hearing. She didn’t immediately comment on why they weren’t invited.
More recently, congressional Democrats and public interest groups have filed complaints against Thomas following recent reports by ProPublica detailing years of undisclosed financial ties between the justice and Crow. Whitehouse said during the hearing that “the Judicial Conference actions then are the prequel to what is in front of it now.”
Republican members of the committee questioned Wolf’s integrity and suggested he was part of a broader partisan attack on Thomas and the Supreme Court. Wolf denied any political motivation.
Wolf said later that he thought all members of the Senate had an interest in how federal ethics laws are being carried out.
“I’m not here as part of a witch hunt. I’m here because I hope to contribute to reframing some of the important issues and prompting, maybe naively, a more civil, sensible discussion,” he said.
Revisiting the timeline
Wolf, confirmed in 1985 under former President Ronald Reagan, is a former chief judge of the Massachusetts court.
Wolf said he was told by the financial disclosure committee’s chair that they hadn’t reported the Thomas complaints to the Judicial Conference because staff considered the matter “routine.” Wolf testified that the complaints presented an unusual set of circumstances and that the allegations against Thomas were “serious.”
Proper enforcement of the disclosure rules was important to ensuring accountability, he said.
“An independent judge or independent judiciary could be a dishonest judge or a dishonest judiciary,” he said. “A delicate balance has to be struck between the interests of independence and assuring that judges, like every public official and every citizen in the country, is somehow accountable.”
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