Clarence Thomas has served on the U.S. Supreme Court since 1991. African American and born in poverty in Pinpoint, Georgia, Thomas attended Yale Law School and took the place of Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights attorney and first African American on the Supreme Court. Those facts should bring pride to the Black community. Unfortunately, from the start shadowy questions have marked Thomas’ tenure on the Court. Sexual harassment allegations by law professor Anita Hill were leveled against him thirty-one years ago. He is known for being anti-Black with rulings that have undermined affirmative action, voting rights, and criminal justice reform. Now, he is the focus of a scandal that could lead to impeachment.
For twenty years, Thomas has been taking luxury trips worth millions from a Republican billionaire known for actively pushing a conservative agenda. “None of these gifts were disclosed on Justice Thomas’ official disclosure forms,” said Joshua Kaplan, one of the ProPublica reporters who wrote the story “Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire.” Justice Thomas and his wife Ginny Thomas have been living a lavish lifestyle as the friends of Harlan Crow, a billionaire super donor to conservative causes. The Thomas’ had a vacation in Indonesia, flew on Crow’s plane, stayed on his yacht, at his private island retreats, ranch, and traveled to exotic places around the world, for years.
“Crow’s apparent gifts to Thomas have no known precedent in the modern history of the U.S. Supreme Court,” Kaplan says. Money was given to build a museum near Pinpoint, Georgia, one of Thomas’ pet projects. Money was given to Ginny Thomas, a former leader of the Tea Party Movement, who also supported the January 6, 2022, lynch mob’s attack on the Capital, Kaplan said. It is not just receiving the vacations and expensive gifts. It is the failure to disclose these gifts, Kaplan says. Crow and Thomas claim they are friends and that no undue influence took place. Yes, Thomas has been privy to a world of wealth impossible on a federal salary of $285, 000. There could be monetary gifts, loans, and favors given to Thomas by Crow and other wealthy people that have not been reported. Crow has not had a case directly before the Court.
To avoid conflicts of interest and public mistrust, federal employees there are disclosure laws. Thomas followed them initially. However, he stopped reporting in 2004, according to Kaplan. By then the gifts had become lavishly expensive. “The extent and frequency was really surprising,” stated Kaplan. Members of the U.S. Supreme Court must be above reproach because they create the law of the land. Justices have an ethical responsibility to disclose gifts in order to avoid an appearance of impropriety or influence peddling, meaning someone has undue power over judicial decisions or viewpoints. However, there are questions as to whether the Supreme Court places any consequences on a justice for not reporting such gifts.
Thomas’ trip to Indonesia alone is estimated to have cost some $500,000. It was free. Or was it? Failure to disclose these gifts gives the appearance that Thomas was intentionally hiding his relationship with Harlan Crow. Crow, a Dallas-based real estate magnate, gave to many conservative causes, such as the American Enterprise Institute, Teneo, and the Federalist Society, the legal organization that provided Donald Trump with a list of potential Supreme Court Justices from which Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh were nominated. Based on ProPublica’s reporting, the Teneo Network, is a “little-known group run by Leonard Leo comprised of “networks of conservatives that can roll back” liberal influence in Wall Street and Silicon Valley, among authors and academics, with pro athletes and Hollywood producers.” Back in 2011, Thomas’ gift taking and close relationships with conservative groups were under scrutiny. Last year, Ginny Thomas was questioned by the January 6 Commission.
Thomas had been given notice that ProPublica was investigating these gifts from Harlan Crow, Kaplan said. Steven Engelberg, editor in chief at ProPublica reiterated that their news organization gives any subject of an investigation time to respond. Thomas received a list of questions, Engelberg said. He did not respond. After the story was published, Thomas issued a statement. “Early in my tenure at the Court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends.” He promised to do so in the future. Thomas’s statement does not deny taking the gifts.
He seems not to understand that taking these gifts and then failing to report it gives a public impression that a conservative Republican billionaire has bought the most powerful Black man in American government and that these trips allowed Crow to keep an eye on Thomas to insure this powerful jurist did not stray from the conservative path. Perhaps Thomas did not realize how his behavior undermined a high Court already suffering from the lowest public approval rating in its history and defied laws passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal. The Ethics in Government Act requires Supreme Court justices and many other federal officials to report most gifts to the public. Federal employees in positions of power must report free rides on private jets.
Justices are generally required to report all gifts worth more than $415, defined as anything of value, according to ProPublica. ”It is absolutely impossible that anyone could reasonably interpret that exception to apply to private jet flights,” said Walter Shaub, former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. “Not in any universe.” Richard Painter, who served as the chief ethics lawyer for the George W. Bush White House, said Thomas’ explanation of why he didn’t disclose the trips “makes absolutely no sense.”
A letter on April 10, to Chief Justice John Roberts, from the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Sen. Dick Durban, demanded that the Chief Justice investigate Thomas. The letter states that’s there is a “need to restore confidence in the Supreme Court’s ethical standards. And if the Court does not resolve this issue on its own, the Committee will consider legislation to resolve it.” Conservatives have a supermajority on the Supreme Court and Roberts is one of them. Clarence Thomas is viewed as the most conservative justice on the Court.
Impeachment is possible. Donald Trump was impeached twice. Alcee Hastings, an African American federal judge, was impeached and removed from off in 1989. The last Supreme Court impeachment was Samuel Chase in 1805. However Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas resigned from the Court amidst a scandal involving $20,000. In Thomas’ case, the unreported gifts from Harlan Crow are worth millions.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is a professor at John Jay College (CUNY), author of She Took Justice: The Black Woman, Law, and Power and a playwright.