Justice Thomas Caught Up In Yet Another Ethical Tangle

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"Justice Thomas Caught Up In Yet Another Ethical Tangle"

The New York Times reports on Justice Clarence Thomas’ longstanding — and highly fruitful — relationship with a leading conservative donor named Harlan Crow. Crow has donated nearly $5 million to Republican candidates and conservative organizations, including $100,000 to the anti-John Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — and he has also been very generous to the Thomas family:

The two men met in the mid-1990s, a few years after Justice Thomas joined the court. Since then, Mr. Crow has done many favors for the justice and his wife, Virginia, helping finance a Savannah library project dedicated to Justice Thomas, presenting him with a Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass and reportedly providing $500,000 for Ms. Thomas to start a Tea Party-related group. They have also spent time together at gatherings of prominent Republicans and businesspeople at Mr. Crow’s Adirondacks estate and his camp in East Texas. [...]

Mr. Crow has not personally been a party to Supreme Court litigation, but his companies have been involved in federal court cases, including four that went to the appellate level. And he has served on the boards of two conservative organizations involved in filing supporting briefs in cases before the Supreme Court. One of them, the American Enterprise Institute, with Mr. Crow as a trustee, gave Justice Thomas a bust of Lincoln valued at $15,000 and praised his jurisprudence at an awards gala in 2001.

As the Times‘ article details, Crow also donated $1.3 million to help set up a museum that Thomas has been heavily involved in creating — an arrangement that could violate the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges if it wasn’t for the fact that the Supreme Court has exempted itself from this Code.

Sadly, Thomas’ relationship with Crow — and the even more troubling fact that he received a $15,000 gift from an organization that frequently files briefs before his Court — is merely the most recent example of many ethically questionable actions by Justice Thomas:

Unethical Fundraising: The Code of Conduct does not allow judges to “personally participate in fund-raising activities, solicit funds for any organization, or use or permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for that purpose,” except in very limited circumstances. Yet Justice Thomas attended a Koch-sponsored political fundraiser intended to fund the conservative infrastructure of front groups, political campaigns, think tanks and media outlets. This attendance is technically legal, because of the justices exemption from the Code of Conduct, but the justices claim that they have long followed a policy of “look[ing] to the Code of Conduct for guidance” in determining when they may participate in fundraising activities.

Failure to Disclose: Federal judges and justices are required by law to disclose their spouse’s income — thus preventing persons who wish to influence the judge or justice from funneling money to them through their husband or wife. Nevertheless, Thomas falsely claimed that his wife Ginni — a lobbyist and high-earning member of the professional right — earned no non-investment income whatsoever while she was working at the right-wing Heritage Foundation. When asked to explain this error, Thomas — who is one of the nine people responsible for issuing binding interpretations of the nation’s founding document — claimed that he “misunderst[ood] the filing instructions.”

Potential Conflict of Interest: Ginni Thomas used to lead an organization that vigorously opposes the Affordable Care Act, and she even briefly signed a memo calling that Act unconstitutional. Ginni also may be earning lobbying fees for working to have this Act repealed. A team of conservative lawyers recently argued that such activities by a judge’s spouse requires the judge to recuse from the lawsuits challenging the ACA, but a defiant speech Thomas gave to the conservative Federalist Society leaves little doubt that he will not recuse.

A Financial Stake in His Own Decisions?: Ginni Thomas may also be getting rich off of her husband’s vote in the infamous Citizens United decision — which freed corporations to spend billions of dollars to buy U.S. elections. Ginni’s new lobbying firm “offers advice on optimizing political investments for charitable giving in the non-profit world or political causes,” a line of work which has obviously become much more lucrative since Citizens United.

Any one of these instances would be troubling, but the fact that one justice has managed to accrue such a list is deeply disturbing and raises serious questions about what else Thomas might be hiding.

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