The publicity-shy friend turned out to be Harlan Crow, a Dallas real estate magnate and a major contributor to conservative causes. Mr. Crow stepped in to finance the multimillion-dollar purchase and restoration of the cannery, featuring a museum about the culture and history of Pin Point that has become a pet project of Justice Thomas’s.
The project throws a spotlight on an unusual, and ethically sensitive, friendship that appears to be markedly different from those of other justices on the nation’s highest court.
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.
In the annals of Thomas’s loose relationship with judicial ethics, Thomas and Crow’s involvement with this museum is a fairly minor incident. The many personal gifts Thomas accepted from wealthy benefactors, including Crow, are much more disturbing. Beyond the Bible Crow gave Thomas — which is valued at $19,000 — and the half-million in start-up funds Crow provided Thomas’s wife, Thomas also accepted a $15,000 gift from a corporate-aligned think tank that occasionally files briefs in Thomas’s very Court.
This kind of gift-taking is obviously quite rare on the Supreme Court, but it is not exactly unprecedented. Forty years ago, Justice Abe Fortas accepted $15,000 to teach a series of seminars — funded by the leaders of frequent corporate litigants including the vice president of Phillip Morris — and he accepted a $20,000 retainer from a stock speculator who was eventually convicted of numerous securities violations. This gifting scandal, which is remarkably similar to the scandal Thomas is currently embroiled in, forced Fortas to resign from the bench in disgrace.
Significantly, Fortas’s gift-taking scandal was met by outrage across the ideological divide. Fortas was a liberal justice, but many of the clearest calls for his resignation came from progressives such as Sen. (and future Vice President) Walter Mondale (D-MN) and Brown v. Board of Education author Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Today, however, Thomas’s many ethical tangles earn, in the words of Rep. Chris Murphy (D-CT), “deafening silence from Republicans.” As it turns out, congressional Republicans are too busy dreaming up fake ethical scandals to try to rig important Supreme Court decisions to pay attention to the very real ethical scandals facing their judicial ally.