(Daily Caller News Foundation) — A majority of ethics experts cited by ProPublica in its recent stories on Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito’s alleged ethics violations have histories of donating to Democratic campaigns and left-wing causes, a Daily Caller News Foundation review of Federal Election Commission (FEC) records found.
Seven of the nine ethics experts cited in ProPublica’s stories on Thomas and Alito have collectively given over $100,000 to Democratic campaigns and left-wing causes, FEC records show. Several also work for organizations calling for Thomas’ resignation that are backed by donors who also fund ProPublica, the DCNF previously reported. The ProPublica stories did not disclose these ethics experts’ donations or the fact it shares donors with groups pushing for Thomas to resign.
ProPublica published several stories over the past few months, citing experts who allege Thomas violated high court ethics rules by failing to disclose expensive trips he took with his billionaire friend Harlan Crow, along with Crow’s purchase of Thomas’ mother’s home and the payment of his grandnephew’s private school tuition. In a June 20 report, which Alito preempted with his own Wall Street Journal op-ed, the outlet quoted experts who alleged the Supreme Court justice violated ethics rules by failing to disclose his 2008 Alaska fishing trip with billionaire Paul Singer.
“It should come as no surprise that ProPublica, in a partisan and politically motivated attack on a constitutionalist Supreme Court, chooses to selectively interview Democrat donors pretending to be independent experts on judicial ethics,” Mike Davis, the former chief counsel for nominations to Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and founder and president of the Article III Project, told the DCNF.
“These so-called experts only want to go after justices who disagree with their worldview,” Davis said.
Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, has donated over $92,000 to Democrats and left-wing causes since she retired in 2011, according to FEC records. Most recently, in March 2023, Gertner donated $750, collectively, to the campaigns of California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Over the years, Gertner has also given thousands to ActBlue, a fundraising platform for Democratic candidates and left-wing groups. In 2022 alone, Gertner donated over $3,500 to ActBlue, according to FEC records.
Gertner is also a board member of the American Constitution Society (ACS), which has the same major donors as ProPublica, the DCNF previously found through a review of tax documents. ACS President Russ Feingold backed calls for a DOJ investigation into Clarence Thomas in April and argued Congress “has a duty to check the Supreme Court.”
In the story focusing on Thomas’ trips with Crow, Gertner told ProPublica Thomas’ conduct was “incomprehensible” and noted that, as a judge, she would not mention her title while making reservations for dinner.
ProPublica says four “current or retired federal judges” agreed that Thomas broke norms for judges’ conduct, but does not name any besides Gertner.
“They have no interest in applying ethics standards fairly or objectively,” Davis continued. “They are leftwing ideologues who shouldn’t be taken seriously.”
NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik told the DCNF donations don’t “disqualify” the cited experts but noted “there are circumstances in which that can be illuminating, or valuable, or at least reasonable context to have as a reader.”
“It lets you know where their sympathies lie,” Folkenflik said. “Their sympathies may not lie with the court that is 6-3 appointed by people in the other party.”
Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), who is cited in three of ProPublica’s recent stories, contributed to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016, former President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012 and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2004, totaling over $1,000 in donations, according to FEC records.
Canter told ProPublica Thomas “seems to have completely disregarded his higher ethical obligations” by accepting trips from Crow. In response to Alito’s claim that his travel on a private jet paid for by Singer was not subject to disclosure under a personal hospitality reporting exemption, she said the justice is “trying to move away from the plain language of the statute and the regulation.”
Some of ProPublica’s top donors have also donated to CREW, which called on Justice Clarence Thomas to resign in May, the DCNF found through tax documents.
A ProPublica spokesperson told the DCNF that experts quoted in the stories are “professionals with deep expertise and reputations for independence, who regularly criticize Democrats and Republicans alike.”
“Several of the people we’ve quoted in our stories have served in Republican administrations,” the spokesperson said. “To our knowledge, no one with government ethics expertise has disputed the premise of the stories: When justices accept gifts from people with ideological or business interests before the court and do not disclose them, they are departing from the norms of behavior followed by the vast majority of federal judges.”
Amanda Frost, a law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law cited by ProPublica in its article on Justice Alito, has given nearly $12,000 to left-wing causes between 2008 and 2021, including presidential campaigns for Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, ActBlue and multiple congressional campaigns, according to FEC records.
Frost, who testified at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Supreme Court ethics reform in May, told ProPublica that Alito’s trip shows that the idea we can “just trust” justices to do the right thing while they “[remain] in total secrecy is unworkable.”
“I have spent the last twenty years promoting the enactment of ethics legislation that would (of course) apply to all the Justices, whoever appointed them, and during years when the Court’s decisions were viewed as more liberal,” Frost told the DCNF, noting she has clerked for a Republican-appointed judge and criticized the ethical conduct of justices appointed by Democrats in both her scholarship and testimonies before Congress.
“In addition, I publicly defended the ethical conduct [of] Chief Justice John Roberts in a recent New York Times story about his wife’s employment,” Frost said.
Abbe Smith, a Georgetown University law professor who told ProPublica Alito should have recused himself from cases because of his trip with Singer, has given more than $2,000 to left-wing causes and Democratic campaigns since 2004, according to FEC records. These include ActBlue and both Hilary Clinton’s and Obama’s presidential campaigns.
Smith recently donated $40 to ActBlue in 2022 and a total of $700 to Clinton between 2015 and 2016.
Washington University law professor Kathleen Clark, who was included in three ProPublica stories, has donated nearly $400 to Democrat causes since 2006, per FEC records. She gave $100 to Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008.
Her last listed donations in FEC filings are two ActBlue gifts in 2016 amounting to a total of $54.
Kedric Payne, senior director for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), another organization backed by donors who also fund ProPublica, donated $500 to Jaime Harrison’s Senate campaign against Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, according to FEC records. He also donated $250 to Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 while he was working at the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Affiliates, per LinkedIn.
Payne, who told ProPublica in its initial article that Thomas violated disclosure law, also testified as a Democratic witness at the May hearing on Supreme Court ethics reform. During the hearing, Republican Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy grilled Payne over a retweet saying some justices are “politicians in robes who thrive in a system where access & influence are for sale.”
Richard Painter, former chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, donated $1,000 to President Biden’s election campaign in 2020 and ran as a Democrat for a U.S. Senate seat in 2018, according to FEC records. He was consulted about setting up a legal defense fund by Hunter Biden’s lawyers, according to the New York Times. Painter told ProPublica Crow’s payment of private school tuition for Thomas’ grandnephew was “way outside the norm” and suggested a White House official who accepted the same gift would be fired. However, neither Painter nor ProPublica cited any White House regulation or policy supporting this allegation.
Painter told the DCNF he also donated about $25,000 to the GOP between 1998 and 2004 and intends to back Sen. Tim Scott in the 2024 presidential election. He also noted that he “strongly condemned the Penn-Biden arrangement and the mishandling of classified information” in an interview with Tucker Carlson in January 2023.
As far as the Supreme Court, Painter told the DCNF he isn’t focused on any justice in particular, noting he has also called out Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s multi-million dollar book deal with Penguin Random House.
“All the lefties are out here saying, well, this is nothing compared to [Justice Thomas], and that’s not the point,” he said. “The point is, should we be doing these book deals? Any of them. I don’t care if it’s Justice Barrett or Sotomayor. I’m just not so sure that having million dollar book deals is good for the Supreme Court.”
Gertner, Canter, Clark and Payne did not respond to requests for comment. Smith declined to comment.