DemDaily: Distrust in Justice

April 27, 2023

Americans trust in the country's highest court, already under steady decline, has been further eroded by recent allegations against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas regarding receipt of millions of dollars in gifts in violation of government ethics laws.

As first reported by ProPublica earlier this month, Thomas failed to report over twenty years worth of annual secret  sponsored by Republican megadonor and Dallas real estate billionaire Harlan Crow. One 2019 trip to Indonesia, alone, which included transportation on a private jet and 162-foot yacht owned by Crow, would have cost in excess of $500,000 had Thomas personally paid the tab.

The extent and frequency of Crow’s gifts to Thomas are unprecedented in the modern history of the US Supreme Court.

Under the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, passed in the wake of the Nixon Watergate scandal, federal officials, including Supreme Court justices, are require to disclose the sources and amounts -- in excess of $1,000 -- of income, gifts, reimbursements, property held and related transactions, liabilities owed, commodities, and securities, and certain financial interests of a spouse or dependent.

Subsequent reporting revealed that one of Crow's company purchased real estate -- a house and two vacant lots in Savannah, Georgia -- from Thomas, his mother and the family of Thomas’ late brother for $133,363 in 2014. The company subsequently invested close to $40,000 in repairs and renovations to the house, where Thomas's mother lives rent-free. The financial exchange was not disclosed by Thomas.

In a statement, Crow said he purchased the properties "to one day create a public museum at the Thomas home dedicated to telling the story of our nation’s second black Supreme Court Justice.”

On April 16, the Washington Post reported that Thomas has, for over twenty years, claimed income of up to $50,000 to $100,000 from a Nebraska real estate firm, Ginger Ltd. Partnership, that shut down in 2006. It was replaced by a similarly named new firm, Ginger Holding LLC, but there is no mention of it in Thomas’ records. Joanne K. Elliott, the Justice's sister-in-law, is listed as the company's manager.

These revelations are hardly the only -- or the most egregious -- of ethics questions surrounding the 74-year-old conservative associate justice, who has served on the high court since 1991.

In 2022, Thomas refused to recuse himself from cases that involved efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election after it was revealed that his wife, influential conservative activist Ginni Thomas, had been in direct communication with former President Donald Trump to advocate for the QAnon-related conspiracy schemes.

Thomas also has specifically claimed no income for his wife over various periods, including from 2003 until 2007, when she earned $686,000 from the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation.

Harlan Crow has also been a supporter of Ginni Thomas, contributing half a million dollars in 2011 to a Tea Party group she founded, which also paid her a $120,000 salary.

Federal judges sit in a unique position of public trust. "When a justice's lifestyle is being subsidized by the rich and famous, it absolutely corrodes [that] trust," said Virginia Canter, Chief Ethics Counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics.

There are no internal mechanisms or disciplinary measures in place for Supreme Court justices. While the Department of Justice may pursue penalties for ethical violations, only impeachment can remove a justice -- which requires a majority vote in the House and two-thirds in the US Senate.

On April 10, Democrats on the US Senate Judiciary Committee called for an investigation into Thomas’ actions, saying Chief Justice John Roberts should “immediately open” a probe into “how such conduct could take place” on his watch.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin asked Roberts to voluntarily testify at a May 2 hearing "regarding the need to restore confidence in the Supreme Court's ethical standards."

In declining the invitation on Tuesday, Roberts did not respond directly to questions about Thomas, but instead released a statement signed by all nine justices, which said they "reaffirm and restate foundational ethics principles and carrying out their responsibilities as Members of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Durbin responded to the refusal, stating, “Make no mistake: Supreme Court ethics reform must happen whether the Court participates in the process or not.”

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: ProPublica, Washington Post, Vox, NBC, The Hill

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