When an April ProPublica report revealed that billionaire GOP megadonor Harlan Crow had for decades taken Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on ultra-luxurious trips — including paying for Thomas’ travel on his private jet — Republicans rushed to Thomas’ defense. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for example, objected to Democrats’ attempts to gather more information on the trips, which Thomas had not disclosed, as an effort to “delegitimize the court” and undermine Thomas’ legal opinions. Republicans weren’t correct to rush to Thomas’ defense, but their response was a predictable performance of partisanship in response to a single report.
Since then, a stream of more damning information about Thomas’ financial connections have trickled out. Those reports include a subsequent ProPublica article revealing that Crow also paid for Thomas’ grandnephew to attend a private school, and it includes a New York Times report suggesting Thomas’ affiliation with the Horatio Alger Association helped pave the path for him to access lavish parties and VIP treatment at events.
There is nothing partisan about calling this what it is: a brazen, shameful abuse of power.
Even then, Republicans held the line. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, has dismissed as “scurrilous attacks” reports on Thomas and damning revelations about Justice Samuel Alito’s billionaire-backed vacation. Not only did he express approval of them, DeSantis said that if he were elected president that he’d like to appoint more justices like Thomas and Alito.
But one has to ask: Where is the line? News from this week suggests that anybody who doesn’t believe that Thomas has crossed that line, and in spectacular fashion, has been entirely poisoned by political tribal allegiances. First, on Sunday came a New York Times report documenting that the recreational vehicle that Thomas boasts keeps him connected to “regular” Americans was purchased in part with a mysterious loan from a wealthy health care industry magnate. That report is seemingly at odds with the narrative Thomas has told about saving up to buy it himself. But things really took a turn Thursday when ProPublica reported that Crow’s financing of Thomas’ life of luxury was just a drop in the bucket. According to Thursday’s report, Thomas has been showered with gifts by at least three other ultra-wealthy “friends” whose combined contributions to Thomas, along with Crow, include:
at least 38 destination vacations, including a previously unreported voyage on a yacht around the Bahamas; 26 private jet flights, plus an additional eight by helicopter; a dozen VIP passes to professional and college sporting events, typically perched in the skybox; two stays at luxury resorts in Florida and Jamaica; and one standing invitation to an uber-exclusive golf club overlooking the Atlantic coast.
ProPublica estimates that the total value of the trips is “likely in the millions.” Jeremy Fogel, a former federal judge who served for years on the judicial committee that reviews judges’ financial disclosures, told ProPublica he thinks the value of gifts given to Thomas is “unprecedented.”
There is nothing partisan about calling this what it is: a brazen, shameful abuse of power that undermines the legitimacy of the Supreme Court. That Thomas reportedly took these gifts is alarming enough. That he reportedly took them without disclosing that he had taken them (with rare exceptions) makes it hard to believe that Thomas doesn't realize how bad this all looks.
All of these friends reportedly arrived in Thomas’ life after he became a Supreme Court justice. Is it possible that Thomas feels a sincere sense of camaraderie with these people? Of course. That doesn’t change how inappropriate his acceptance of such gifts is. Regardless of Thomas’ private intentions or feelings, he can’t shed his status as a Supreme Court justice when he’s accepting gifts. That means those gifts are potential avenue for political influence.
Even if Thomas wanted to argue that no gift could sway his legal philosophy — which is impossible to prove — the appearance of impropriety alone helps corrode the reputation of the court.
Some of Thomas’ nondisclosures appear to have violated federal law. But there is no realistic prospect of him facing sanction. As I’ve discussed before, the larger problem is that there’s no binding, enforceable code of conduct for Supreme Court justices. Experts note that the disclosure of gifts when a justice has some kind of personal relationship with the giver has been treated by the court as a norm to follow, not a strict rule. And even that loose custom has been abused.
This shouldn’t be a partisan issue — it’s impossible to imagine Republicans being OK with any of the liberal justices being given millions of dollars worth of gifts from powerful Democrats. Democrats have been working on advancing a Supreme Court ethics bill that would help create a binding code of conduct for the court, which would apply to all justices. Republicans in the Senate Judiciary Committee voted against it. Unbelievably, Republicans like Graham have argued that it’s a bill meant to “destroy” the Supreme Court.
Au contraire, it’s a way to restore some decency to it.