The biggest revelation in CBS News reporter Jan Crawford’s piece on the Supreme Court’s health care deliberations isn’t that Chief Justice John Roberts originally voted to strike down the Affordable Care Act and then changed his mind — Crawford merely confirmed what many people already expected based on evidence in the opinions themselves. Rather, the biggest revelation is that fact that, in order for her piece to exist at all, someone inside the Court must have leaked confidential information to her.
Yesterday, the New York Times‘ Adam Liptak strongly implied that the leak could be Justice Clarence Thomas:
[T]he possibility that conservatives had victory within reach only to lose it seemed to infuriate some of them. The CBS News report, attributed to two sources with “specific knowledge of the deliberations,” appeared to give voice to the frustrations of people associated with the court’s conservative wing. It was written by Jan Crawford, whose 2007 book, “Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court,” was warmly received by conservatives.
In a 2009 interview on C-Span, Justice Thomas singled her out as a favorite reporter. “There are wonderful people out here who do a good job — do a fantastic job — like Jan Greenburg,” Justice Thomas said, referring to Ms. Crawford by her married name at the time.
Watch Thomas praise Crawford:
Thomas’ affection for Crawford is mutual, and Crawford has spent years defending Thomas against his critics. At times, these defenses have been thoughtful and compelling, such as when she shot down the ridiculous idea that Thomas is merely a lapdog for his less conservative colleague Justice Antonin Scalia, or when she defended Thomas’ wife’s Ginni’s right to have her own career regardless of what her husband does for a living. At other times, they have been much less thoughtful, such as when Crawford accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) of racism for criticizing Thomas. Crawford has also conducted high-profile interviews of Thomas in the past.
None of this, of course, proves conclusively that Thomas is one of Crawford’s two sources. But it does demonstrate that the two of them have a strong working relationship based on mutual admiration for each other. If Thomas were looking to leak confidential information to a member of the Supreme Court press, it is likely that he would choose the one reporter he has publicly revealed to be his favorite. The fact that that reporter is a well-regarded conservative journalist who also works for a high profile outlet is gravy.
If Thomas is the leak, that would be a shocking escalation from the justices normal tactics — and one which could have lasting consequences for the future. Appellate courts function because of the assumption that their members can openly discuss their thoughts and misgivings about individual cases without fear that those discussions will later be used to embarrass them. If that assumption no longer prevails in Supreme Court conferences, the Court will morph into a far less deliberative, more factional institution.
Yet Thomas has shown no indication in the past that he cares about the sanctity of institutions or the consequences of his actions. Thomas continually finds himself embroiled in ethics scandals, including a high-profile gifting scandal similar to the one that forced Justice Abe Fortas to resign from the bench in 1969. Thomas’ jurisprudence is equally reckless, as he would declare everything from national child labor laws to the federal ban on whites-only lunch counters unconstitutional.
If Thomas did leak the Court’s deliberations, that still leaves open who the second leaker is (Noam Scheiber makes a strong case that the second leak could be Justice Kennedy). At the moment, however, we know that Thomas is the justice who is most likely to cast long-established practices aside due to a personal crusade. And we know that he already has a good relationship with the reporter who received the Supreme leak.