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The Clarence Thomas Scandal

By Ian Millhiser  

"The Clarence Thomas Scandal"

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In 1969, Justice Abe Fortas resigned in disgrace after the nation learned that he had accepted tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts from corporate executives and other wealthy benefactors. Forty years later, Justice Clarence Thomas is caught in a strikingly similar scandal. Similarly to Fortas, Thomas has a wealthy benefactor named Harlan Crow who has shown lavish generosity to Thomas and his Tea Partying wife Ginni. And where Fortas had an ad hoc group of corporate executives to subsidize his lifestyle, Thomas seems to have the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) — a corporate-aligned think tank that once gave him a $15,000 gift. We find it difficult to find daylight between Thomas’ actions and the gifting scandal that forced Abe Fortas off the bench.

LAVISH GIFTS: Like Fortas before him, Thomas received tens of thousands of dollars worth of gifts from wealthy benefactors — some of whom have an interest in cases before his court. Crow gave Thomas a $19,000 Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass. He provided Thomas’ wife with half a million dollars to start a Tea Party group, and he donated over $1 million dollars to fund a museum that will include exhibits honoring Justice Thomas. Crow has a long history of investing in conservative political causes — he’s donated nearly $5 million to Republican candidates and conservative organizations, including $100,000 to the anti-John Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — but he isn’t even the most troubling entity to rain gifts upon Clarence Thomas. That honor goes to AEI, which gifted Thomas with a $15,000 bust of Abraham Lincoln even though AEI frequently files briefs in Thomas’ Court. Thomas has not recused himself from cases in which AEI participated.

SCANDALS UPON SCANDALS: If Thomas’ addiction to high dollar favors were his only problem, that would be deeply disturbing. But this is just one of many scandals facing the justice. Justice Thomas attended a Koch-sponsored political fundraiser intended to fund the conservative infrastructure of front groups, political campaigns, think tanks, and media outlets, an act that would likely violate his ethical obligation not to engage in fundraising if the Supreme Court were not exempt from the Code of Conduct for U.S. judges. Thomas 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, despite having a legal obligation to disclose her income on his annual disclosure form. After Thomas’ failure to disclose this income was widely reported by the press, Thomas amended his disclosure forms to include Ginni’s income. And the fact that his wife is now working as a Tea Party lobbyist could raise recusal issues for Justice Thomas. Ginni Thomas has a right to do whatever she wants for a living, but if the Thomas family earned one dime to lobby in favor of repealing health reform, it would be a serious conflict of interest for Thomas to sit on a case that could make that repeal a reality.

THEIR MAN ON THE COURT: The rich and the powerful have been good to Justice Thomas, but Thomas has been extremely good to them. Thomas didn’t just join the infamous Citizens United decision opening up the flood gates to corporate money in elections, he also would have struck down essential transparency laws that allow Americans to know who is buying their democracy. Thomas stood behind decisions eviscerating consumer rights and the rights of workers in the workplace, and he embraces a vision of the Constitution that is nothing shy of terrifying. In three separate opinions, conservative Thomas called for a return to a discredited theory of the Constitution that early 20th century justices used to declare federal child labor laws unconstitutional. So Thomas has little regard for the Constitution and even less for precedent — perhaps that explains why he has thumbed his nose at the Fortas precedent and entangled himself so tightly with his wealthy and influential benefactors.

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