I am shocked, shocked to find that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ commitment to originalism — that is, the belief that legal texts should be interpreted as they were understood when they were adopted — comes to a screeching halt the minute he slides off the bench.
When Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act in 1978, which requires government officials to report gifts, I’m pretty sure legislators had in mind exactly the sort of relationship Thomas has with the Republican megadonor and Nazi memorabilia collector Harlan Crow.
I mean, maybe nothing can stop a venal Supreme Court justice from being lavished with gifts by a conservative billionaire (the rules are lax compared to other public servants), but Congress most certainly requires the grabby justice to disclose the billionaire’s generosity.
Thanks to spectacular reporting last week by the nonprofit investigative outfit ProPublica, we now know that for at least two decades, Crow has served as Clarence and Ginni Thomas’ patron, benefactor, sponsor and, let’s face it, fairy godfather. He has showered them with gifts, trips and all sorts of unseemly favors.
And on Thursday, came a second damning ProPublica investigation:
In 2014, one of Crow’s companies purchased a home owned by Thomas and his relatives in Savannah, Ga., and immediately began thousands of dollars of upgrades. The home is the longtime residence of Thomas’ mother.
“The transaction marks the first known instance of money flowing from the Republican megadonor to the Supreme Court justice,” reported ProPublica. Thomas did not report the real estate transaction, as required by federal disclosure law.
Crow told ProPublica that the purchase was part of a plan to create a historical museum honoring the humble roots of the second Black man to be confirmed to the Supreme Court. But that has no bearing on the reporting requirements, as ProPublica has noted.
All the while Thomas was enjoying Crow’s largesse, he has posed as a man of the people.
“I don’t have any problem with going to Europe, but I prefer the United States,” Thomas said in a recent documentary funded partially by Crow, according to ProPublica. “I prefer the Walmart parking lots to the beaches and things like that. There’s something normal about me.”
Although they describe one another as close personal friends, Crow and Thomas did not meet until after Thomas was already a member of the Supreme Court, which should tell you something about why they are so chummy.
Both men say that Crow has never been associated with a case that has come before Thomas.
But the idea that a real estate magnate and conservative activist such as Crow would not have an interest in the outcome of many Supreme Court cases is laughable. As laughable, really, as Thomas failing to acknowledge his apparent conflict of interest in matters pertaining to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, though his wife pronounced the election stolen, and even attended President Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the violence.
Crow is chairman of the board of trustees of the American Enterprise Institute, the neoconservative think tank that regularly files amicus briefs with the court. He has given millions to conservative causes — according to ProPublica, more than $10 million in publicly disclosed donations and untold millions in dark money. Crow has also funded Ginni Thomas’ right-wing political endeavors. In 2009, he donated half a million dollars to Liberty Central, the conservative political advocacy group she founded and from which she drew an annual salary of $120,000.
On the “personal hospitality” front, Crow has paid for the Thomases to take opulent international trips on his private jets and super yacht. As far back as 1997, he whisked the justice to the all-male bacchanal of elites known as the Bohemian Grove, in the redwoods north of San Francisco. And as recently as 2019, the Thomases flew to Indonesia on Crow’s jet for nine days of island hopping aboard his 162-foot yacht, the Michaela Rose.
The unavoidable conclusion: Crow has spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars underwriting a lifestyle for the Thomases that is unthinkable on the $285,000 annual salary of a Supreme Court justice.
Though there seems to have been some wiggle room in reporting requirements about such things as accommodations and meals, Thomas is required by law to report all the fancy travel (and the justices’ reporting rules were tightened in March). Yet he opted to keep it private, claiming he was told such reporting was unnecessary. Failing to report such gifts is wrong. Thomas must be held to account.
As it happens, Thomas has been receiving a lot of pricey goodies for a very, very long time.
Nearly 20 years ago, my colleagues Rick Serrano and David Savage wrote that the justice had reported accepting “tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts since joining the high court,” including $1,200 worth of tires and a $5,000 personal check from a supporter to help pay a nephew’s education expenses. Crow and his wife gave Thomas a $19,000 Bible once owned by Frederick Douglass and a $15,000 bust of President Lincoln.
Those gifts, once disclosed, were on the up and up, but it didn’t look good. After The Times broke that story in 2004, however, Thomas didn’t stop accepting gifts. He simply stopped reporting them.
ProPublica’s revelations finally lit a fire under the watchdogs. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has been asked by Democrats to investigate his colleague. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have said they will convene a hearing about the need to “restore confidence in the Supreme Court’s ethical standards.” And a bipartisan ethics watchdog group has asked the Judicial Conference, which makes policy for federal courts, to get involved, perhaps by referring the case to the Justice Department for investigation.
Thomas is certainly not the only member of the high court to accept gifts and paid travel, but he seems to be the worst offender by far. And it appears that he has broken the law in the process.
Americans’ faith in the Supreme Court has crumbled in recent years, mainly because its rulings are so out of step with public opinion on deeply felt issues such as abortion and gun control.
But those are political issues. Thomas’ receipt of gifts is not.
Thomas’ arrogant flouting of ethical rules and norms and his possible corruption are unacceptable. If Supreme Court justices can’t be trusted to police themselves — and it’s obvious they can’t — Congress and the Justice Department must do it for them.