To put it mildly, this week wasn’t kind to Clarence Thomas, what with an avalanche of media attention piling on top of credible reports suggesting the associate Supreme Court justice has for decades been accepting bribes from a politically connected billionaire with conservative interests.
While the pressure was already on Thomas to explain other questionable associations in his private life that could compromise his professional life, this week’s allegations added to the standing speculatory question: Will Clarence Thomas resign? The list of allegations that Thomas is corrupt has grown significantly in just the past week alone.
The renewed scrutiny of Thomas came last week after ProPublica published a bombshell investigative report with receipts galore showing the second-ever Black Supreme Court Judge has been accepting luxurious gifts from Harlan Crow, an influential real estate magnate and Texas billionaire, and not reporting them as such.
Accepting such gifts constitutes an ethics violation, and Thomas has not denied he ever received such gifts from Crow.
According to the report, Thomas has, for decades, accepted free luxury vacations from Crow.
That much had already been known since at least 2011, when the New York Times published its investigation into whether Thomas misused his “prestige of office” to persuade Crow to fund a $1.3 million museum in Pin Point, Georgia, the judge’s hometown. The Times also unraveled a list of gifts and donations given to Thomas, including a $15,000 bust of Abraham Lincoln from a group affiliated with Crow.
That same year, Politico reported that Crow “also once gave Justice Thomas a $19,000 ‘Frederick Douglass Bible’ as a gift and donated $150,000 to build a new wing named for Thomas on a Savannah, Ga., library that Clarence Thomas visited frequently in his youth.”
It was in that context last week when ProPublica reported that Thomas and Crow’s suspected reciprocal relationship has continued over the years.
For more than two decades, Thomas has accepted luxury trips virtually every year from the Dallas businessman without disclosing them, documents and interviews show. A public servant who has a salary of $285,000, he has vacationed on Crow’s superyacht around the globe. He flies on Crow’s Bombardier Global 5000 jet. He has gone with Crow to the Bohemian Grove, the exclusive California all-male retreat, and to Crow’s sprawling ranch in East Texas. And Thomas typically spends about a week every summer at Crow’s private resort in the Adirondacks.
The extent and frequency of Crow’s apparent gifts to Thomas have no known precedent in the modern history of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Financial disclosure laws
ProPublica tweeted that the “trips appeared nowhere on Thomas’ financial disclosures, where justices are required to list most gifts.” Failing to do so is illegal, ProPublica reported.
“His failure to report the flights appears to violate a federal disclosure law passed after Watergate, according to experts,” ProPublica added in a lengthy Twitter thread promoting its investigative report. “By accepting the trips, Thomas has broken long-standing norms for judges’ conduct, ethics experts and four current or retired federal judges said.”
Thomas quickly responded by issuing a statement through a spokesperson denying he violated any laws.
He said he and his wife were “advised” that such gifts were “not reportable,” whatever that means.
Follow-up coverage doesn’t seem to bode well for Thomas’ future as a member of the nation’s highest court.
First, an ethics watchdog group responded to ProPublica’s breaking news report by urging the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate Thomas for any potential wrongdoings.
“This high-profile ethics matter has historic implications far beyond one Supreme Court justice,” attorneys for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center claimed Tuesday in a letter sent to the Judicial Conference, which sets policies for federal courts.
The letter could prompt the DOJ to launch an investigation that is sure to find evidence that Thomas violated a key financial disclosure law.
On Thursday, ProPublica reported that Thomas also never reported that Crow bought the Georgia home where the judge’s mother still lives to this day for $133,000. Records show that Crow bought the house from Thomas, Thomas’ mother and Thomas’ brother.
The purchase put Crow in an unusual position: He now owned the house where the justice’s elderly mother was living. Soon after the sale was completed, contractors began work on tens of thousands of dollars of improvements on the two-bedroom, one-bathroom home, which looks out onto a patch of orange trees. The renovations included a carport, a repaired roof and a new fence and gates, according to city permit records and blueprints.
A federal disclosure law passed after Watergate requires justices and other officials to disclose the details of most real estate sales over $1,000. Thomas never disclosed his sale of the Savannah properties. That appears to be a violation of the law, four ethics law experts told ProPublica.
To be sure, the federal disclosure law Thomas appears to have violated with the home sale is different from the one he appears to have violated by accepting the luxurious gifts and not reporting them.
Beyond that, there is new evidence that Thomas tried to get rid of the disclosure laws while he was still accepting the private gifts from Crow, according to investigating news outlet the Lever.
“This court should invalidate mandatory disclosure and reporting requirements,” Thomas wrote. He argued that donors could face retaliation and “ruined careers” when they disclose their political spending, citing an example from California in which supporters of a ballot measure ending same-sex marriage were allegedly harassed for donating to the ballot measure campaign.
Thomas decried the prospect of transparency empowering members of the public to come up with ways to try to shame donors and the public officials they bankroll.
“Disclaimer and disclosure requirements enable private citizens and elected officials to implement political strategies specifically calculated to curtail campaign-related activity and prevent the lawful, peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights,” he wrote.
Thomas’ wife is implicated here, too. Not only is Virginia “Ginni” Thomas under fire for her role surrounding the deadly Capitol riots on Jan. 6, 2021, but she was also the recipient of $500,000 from Crow to help establish Liberty Central, a nonprofit political group, in 2009.
For clarity’s sake, Ginni Thomas notably used her massive platform to peddle thoroughly debunked “stop the steal” propaganda; appeared to cheer on the Capitol rioters who sought to overturn a legal election by force; sent nearly two dozen messages to then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows urging him to do everything in his power to overturn the election that Joe Biden won fairly.
Justice Thomas has refused to recuse himself from hearing any case related to the Jan. 6 riots despite the clear conflict of interest presented by his wife’s implicit involvement.
The proverbial ball appears to be in the DOJ’s court. But whether a Justice Department investigation could lead to Thomas’ resignation, there is still the chance he could be impeached. It’s not very likely Thomas would be impeached anytime soon, though, as Republicans have the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is responsible for bringing articles of impeachment to the U.S. Senate.
Dan Urman, a professor teaching courses on the U.S. Supreme Court at Northeastern University in Boston, said he thinks Thomas will emerge unscathed.
“My view is that almost nothing will get a justice removed,” Urman told Northeastern Global News last week. “If Democrats take over the House in 2024, they could possibly hold impeachment hearings; but there is no way that 67 senators will vote to remove Thomas.”
Urman said we only have to look to the past for a glimpse at what the future likely holds.
“By then, this will feel like old news. Think about how quickly the calls to impeach [Justice Brett] Kavanaugh died down in 2019,” Urman added. “The real problem is that the justices do not abide by the code of ethics that find other federal judges,” he says. “They are literally above the law. They have the last word on these matters.”
With that said, history also shows that Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas was forced to resign from his post 54 years ago for accepting a $20,000 fee to provide consultation services to a man who was investigated by the DOJ and convicted of securities violations in 1969.
That instance was relatively tame compared to the firestorm surrounding Clarence Thomas.
This is America.
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