ProPublica’s bombshell report on Justice Clarence Thomas’s apparently egregious ethics violations should lead to a deeper investigation.
Last Thursday, investigative journalists at ProPublica released an explosive report detailing shocking ethical improprieties involving Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. For decades, Thomas has apparently enjoyed the largesse of billionaire Harlan Crow, a Texas real estate businessman and secretive Republican megadonor.
Thomas and Harlan didn’t became acquainted until after Thomas was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1991. By all accounts, the Justice and the billionaire became dear friends. Crow took Thomas on multiple lavish vacations, including private jet and yacht excursions to Indonesia, New Zealand, Greece, the exclusive Bohemian Grove men’s retreat in California, the billionaire’s luxury ranch in east Texas and an annual summer vacation at Camp Topridge, Crow’s invitation-only resort in the Adirondacks.
Crow also supplied Thomas with the personal use of his jet, expensive gifts (such as a $19,000 Bible that once belonged to Frederick Douglass and a $15,000 bust of Abraham Lincoln), a $105,000 donation to the Thomas portrait fund at his alma mater, $175,000 for a wing added to his childhood library, a half-million dollar contribution to wife Ginni Thomas’s Tea Party organization (which then paid Ginni a $120,000 salary), and public art in the form of a 7 foot tall, 1,800 pound bronze statue honoring Clarence Thomas’s favorite 8th grade teacher.
One wonders what Frederick Douglass would have thought of all of this.
According to the particularly weaksauce ethics standards for Supreme Court, justices are obligated to report gifts valued over $415 which aren’t fully reimbursed. (For comparison’s sake, members of Congress aren’t generally supposed to accept gifts worth $50 or more.) The 2019 Indonesia trip alone would have cost Thomas more than half a million dollars if he had independently paid for the travel, lodging, meals and entertainment, quite a stretch on his $285,000 annual salary. Having dinner at Crow’s residence may not count, but borrowing his private jet is right out.
Reimbursement would have been against Harlan crow’s policy, though. “You don’t need to worry about this — it’s all covered,” he was known to tell his vacation guests.
When asked why he didn’t disclose hardly any of these extravagant gifts, Thomas claimed that he didn’t have to. “Early in my tenure at the Court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable,” he said. It’s worth noting that Crow has served on the board of two organizations, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Center for the Community Interest (CCI), which have done well at the Supreme Court during Thomas’s tenure. Thomas has either sided with AEI or taken a more extreme position than theirs, and voted on behalf of CCI’s position in all eight cases where they petitioned the Court.
What’s more, Clarence Thomas’s frequent travel brought him into regular hobnobbing with Crow’s social circle, rich with major corporate leaders, Republican donors, conservative influencers and activists, and members of Trump World.
Not too shabby for a man who claims to prefer vacationing in Wal*Mart parking lots and middle-American RV parks. His “man of the people” persona is becoming far more reminiscent of The Former Guy’s penchant for fast food meals, and is about as thin as ketchup residue on the walls of Mar-a-Lago.
Ethics rules for federal judges, which SCOTUS justices are also supposed to consult for guidance, demands that they avoid even the appearance of impropriety. After the Los Angeles Times drew attention to lavish gifts Thomas accepted way back in 2004, he has reported only two gifts since: a bronze bust of Frederick Douglass, a gift from Crow valued at $6,484.12, and a glass medallion and brass plaque valued at $530 from Yale Law School. Why leave everything else out? Perhaps he wanted to avoid the appearance of impropriety. It would be surprising if someone who prides himself on being a strict originalist were unaware of the precise rules he is supposed to follow. (And if he is, can we also question how well he understands the laws we’re all supposed to follow?)
It’s entirely possible that none of the gifts, charitable contributions, jets or vacations were offered with the explicit understanding that Justice Thomas would help deliver favorable decisions on behalf of Crow, his organizations, or those of the big names he rubbed shoulders with. Perhaps nobody even discussed the Court’s business (or their own) during those week-long stays at luxury resorts or while island-hopping in Indonesia.
However, do they really think that Clarence Thomas – a man who grew up in extreme poverty and for whom English is a second language – is so stupid as to need it all spelled out? Surely he must know how the system is supposed to work, and alternatively, how it often works in reality. It’s conceivable that certain expectations are so intrinsic to such circles that Thomas’ alleged actions didn’t even register as corrupt any more than a fish feels improper while swimming in water. That would go a long way towards explaining how so much has gone so wrong.
Or maybe Harlan Crow simply collects influential friends like he collects Nazi and Hitler memorabilia.
The country, and anyone whose case Thomas had a hand in deciding, deserve to know.