The attacks on Justice Clarence Thomas for his friendship with Texas billionaire Harlan Crow not only continue an illegitimate political pressure campaign against the Supreme Court but also expose the moral vacuum that is Washington, D.C.
ProPublica, a website funded by liberal millionaires, the Washington Post, a newspaper owned by a billionaire, and The New York Times, a media company long owned by a wealthy family, have runs stories over the last month claiming that Thomas has violated ethics codes governing federal judges.
“This tangled web around Justice Clarence Thomas just gets worse and worse by the day,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, D-IL, said this week. Several of his colleagues have called for an investigation into Thomas and have made demands for confidential financial information from Crow.
But a close look shows that this supposed scandal amounts to little more than an accounting error that has never given rise to claims of scandal before, at least when liberal judges were involved. (In the interests of full disclosure, I served as a law clerk for Thomas at the Supreme Court and have had the honor to participate in panels and conferences with him.)
In the first ProPublica report, critics attacked Thomas for failing to report in his financial disclosure forms that Crow had hosted him for trips on his private jet, yacht, and lodge. The financial reporting rules did not require disclosure of hospitality from personal friends – indeed, only in March, after these trips took place, did the federal judiciary decide that judges in future should report private jet travel or stays at commercial hotels.
Although the article implied that Crow sought to buy influence with Thomas, the former runs a construction and real estate company that has no business before the Court. These critics will also want the IRS to force all of us to start reporting and paying taxes whenever we stay overnight at a friend’s home, take a ride in a car or enjoy a meal with buddies.
The second attack occurred over Crow’s 2014 purchase of Thomas’s childhood home in Savannah, where the latter’s mother was still living at the time. Crow paid $133,363 for the property (Zillow appears to value the house now at more than $300,000) because he reportedly wanted to turn it into a museum about the justice’s youth.
Crow has an affection for Americana – he has filled his office complex in Dallas with paintings, statutes, historical documents and memorabilia about the United States. Thomas, who had a one-third interest in the property, did not list the sale in his financial disclosure forms because he lost money on the deal; this was an error, but a small one that he will surely correct.
It pales in comparison to other justices who have failed to recuse themselves in cases where the parties had paid them literally millions of dollars or have failed to report stock sales and spousal income. Don’t search for the stories attacking these liberal justices; no one thought much about it until after the ProPublica stories last month.
The third attack reveals the moral emptiness of the Washington scandal machine at its worst. Thomas took in a grand-nephew who was struggling and sought to raise him, much as his own grandfather had taken over his own upbringing.
Crow paid for a few years of private school for the young boy. Thomas didn’t report it because the judicial ethics code only requires disclosure of such a gift if the boy had been his direct son, not a ward.
Society should admire a man, who had already raised his own son, taking on responsibility for an at-risk youth. If anything, society should encourage more adults to support children who face difficult environments or don’t have the resources for a good education. But inside the Beltway, unelected media censors attack a morally good act simply because it wasn’t reported on the right form.
The thinness of these accusations, or, as former attorney general Michael Mukasey suggested, their hallucinatory quality, reveals that something else is going on. The first and most obvious agenda behind these attacks is the broader assault on the institution of the Supreme Court.
Many Democrats during the 2020 elections promised that they would pack the Supreme Court because, thanks to then-President Donald Trump’s appointments of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, it had come to hold a 6-3 conservative majority.
As the court deliberated over the Dobbs abortion case last year, someone at the court then took the unprecedented step of leaking the opinion, which prompted an assassination attempt on Kavanaugh.
Now that the conservative majority has overturned Roe v. Wade and expanded religious, speech and gun rights, furious leftists are rolling out a coordinated attack on the justices’ private friendships, finances and activities.
Democratic senators won’t succeed in forcing any of the conservative justices to resign from the court, unless they can somehow convince a majority of the Republican House and two-thirds of their Senate colleagues to agree to impeach. But they want to undermine the legitimacy of the Supreme Court now so they can attack its independence in the future. If Biden retains the presidency and Democrats win back the House, court-packing legislation won’t be far behind.
Journalists should not blindly advance such an obvious political agenda, but the pretend financial scandal feeds their own biases. Leftist politicians, and their media and academic helpers, have long targeted Thomas as being too weak for the job or some kind of race traitor. Current Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, for example, once accused Thomas of being a “house negro.”
Commentators accused Thomas of simply following Justice Antonin Scalia and having no voice of his own. It seems undeniable that these attacks are racist in nature. Where are the articles that accuse Justice Samuel Alito, the author of the Dobbs opinion of being led around by an intellectually superior colleague, or that attack Kavanaugh for being unfaithful to the interests of Irish-Americans.
Critics attack Thomas because he is a Black man who, by thinking for himself, has arrived at conservative constitutional principles at odds with the leftist civil rights leadership.
In the Washington world dominated by a Democratic president and Senate, assisted by a sympathetic media and academy, only power explains the manufactured scandal over the Supreme Court, not morality. These critics are confronting a court that, for the first time in almost 90 years, is not helping them impose their vision of the future upon an unwilling American people.
They are willing to go to the extreme lengths of devising a false ethics scandal, unguided by any true sense of morality, to remove an obstacle to their progressive plans. After all, if the goal is ending social inequality, stopping racism or fighting global warming, true believers will not allow a little thing that judicial independence stand in their way. They forget that our nation depends not on the dictates of government, but on the intimate connections of friendship, family and local attachments that explain Thomas.
Only in the Washington of today would morality become a matter of checking off boxes. Thomas’s critics would substitute ethics forms for asking the proper question of whether our judges and other leaders are actually doing the right thing.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, one of Thomas’s accusers, no doubt has legions of lawyers and accountants who fill out his campaign finance forms correctly, while he continues to be a member of an all-White beach club.
Other members of Congress may file the right financial disclosure forms, even as they openly include legislative earmarks that sacrifice the public good for the benefit of favored corporations or campaign contributors. They cannot actually overcome the moral integrity of Justice Thomas – to which even retired justice Stephen Breyer recently attested – so instead they throw up a cloud of reporting violations.
What Americans confused by this blizzard of accusations should ask is whether the justices of the Supreme Court have failed in their moral and constitutional duty to remain impartial in deciding cases, not whether they have failed in the Beltway’s gotcha ethics game. On this score, Thomas’s answer is a no.