Clarence Thomas Is the Most Corrupt of an Extremely Corrupt Supreme Court
A bombshell new report reveals just how extensively Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas has allowed billionaire interests to buy him favors. But he’s far from the only one on the powerful court that’s happy to be showered in favors from the ultrarich.
In a week that saw the unprecedented indictment of a former president and the surreal image of his appearance in a courtroom, the chaotic fun house of American politics somehow found room to fit another bombshell. Last Wednesday, ProPublica reported that Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas — the most right-wing justice on the most right-wing court in generations — has for decades been secretly taking luxury trips and other lavish gifts paid for by billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow, all without disclosure, unambiguously breaking the law in the process.
It’s worth reading the whole piece to drink in the full, scandalous details. Those include a photorealistic painting of Thomas and Crow at the latter’s opulent lakeside resort, depicting the two hanging out together with, among others, longtime Federalist Society bigwig Leonard Leo, maybe the leading architect of the court’s hard-right turn.
The story is rightly being treated as a major scandal, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calling for Thomas’s impeachment over the lawbreaking. But this report barely scratches the surface when it comes to a Supreme Court that’s politically and ethically compromised beyond belief, even as Chief Justice John Roberts has insisted that the court isn’t politicized and that “keep[ing] any kind of partisan divide out of the judiciary” is a “high priority.”
This most recent revelation barely touches the extent of how compromised Thomas alone is. Most of the headlines around the seventy-four-year-old justice and his ethical skirtings have revolved around his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, whose more than thirty years of involvement in conservative political activism sits awkwardly with a powerful court that’s meant to exist above the daily political fray and issue decisions based only on upholding the Constitution. It’s hard to argue the court is merely calling balls and strikes when one of the leading justice’s wives sat on the advisory board of a pro–Donald Trump group and took similar positions at a variety of other well-connected conservative political organizations.
It’s made even harder by the behavior of Thomas’s wife in 2020, when through a flurry of emails and texts, she urged twenty-nine Republican lawmakers in Arizona and former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows to overturn an election that she has, under oath, made clear she believes was fraudulent. Worse, Thomas himself then refused to recuse himself from high-profile cases surrounding the matter, despite the obvious personal conflict of interest. In fact, the justice repeatedly signaled he would vote to actively stymie efforts to investigate efforts to nullify the election result, in line with his wife’s work.
This is a bad look for the entire court, since other justices have reportedly criticized Ginni Thomas over her extracurricular work but have too much personal loyalty to her husband to take him to task, according to Joan Biskupic’s recent book, Nine Black Robes: Inside the Supreme Court’s Drive to the Right and Its Historic Consequences. The highest court in the land apparently recognizes its own politicization but is unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
And that’s before we even get into Ginni’s business, Liberty Consulting, a lobby shop–turned–consulting firm that counts a variety of right-wing advocacy organizations — including the appallingly racist Center for Security Policy — as clients. Another client? The same one Leo painted socializing with Thomas at Crow’s retreat and who, besides working to mold the court in his political image, has been involved in battling the policy agendas of multiple Democratic presidents — sometimes with leadership roles at organizations led by Ginni. Those battles have included the big-money opposition to Barack Obama’s health care reform, which Thomas voted to strike down once upon a time.
But we shouldn’t fixate too much on Justice Thomas and his spouse. Because while they may be unique in just how flagrantly they’re flouting norms and even the law around judicial ethics, this kind of thing is shockingly common on the Supreme Court.
A Rot That Goes Deep
Take Chief Justice Roberts. His spouse, Jane Sullivan Roberts, makes money in a way that runs up against judicial impartiality, working as a recruiter to plop government lawyers at lucrative private law firms. Though the identities of these lawyers are mostly dark to the public — itself a cause for concern — one we know about is Obama’s oil-and-gas-friendly interior secretary Ken Salazar, who, thanks to Jane, went on to work for those same business interests at law firm WilmerHale, which has argued in front of the court more than 125 times.
Those in the know told Politico explicitly that she both got her recruiting job and attracted a client that has a Supreme Court practice because of who she’s married to. “It’s known that her access to people is heavily influenced by her last name,” an unnamed consultant told the outlet.
It’s a similar case with the court’s newest recruit, Amy Coney Barrett, whose husband Jesse Barrett’s Indiana-based corporate law firm just happened to open an office in the nation’s capital a year after she was confirmed to her seat. Though proudly advertising its Fortune 500 clients, who exactly those clients are and whether they might have business before the court his wife sits on is not for the public to know: Barrett reportedly keeps those off her ethics disclosure forms, even blacking out the name of her husband’s firm.
Neil Gorsuch, another hard-right Trump pick on the court, has a special billionaire patron of his own: Colorado fossil fuel billionaire Philip F. Anschutz, a Federalist Society funder among a variety of other right-wing causes, who’s held Gorsuch’s hand throughout the justice’s ascent through the judiciary — a hand often filled with a wad of hundred-dollar bills. Besides the legal work he did for Anschutz’s business earlier in his career, Gorsuch remained financially intertwined with the billionaire’s wider network, one that fought for his 2017 nomination, having served as a partner alongside two of his associates at a firm, with whom he also owned a fishing lodge.
Samuel Alito, George W. Bush’s pick, is one of only two Supreme Court justices to own stock while sitting on the bench, being invested in twenty-eight different companies’ shares (the other, Roberts, owned only four). Besides this and the money he’s taken from the “Christ-centered” university founded by conservative televangelist Pat Robertson, Alito’s also made a habit of giving explicitly political speeches and appearing at the Heritage Foundation, effectively a policy shop for Trump and his Republican predecessors. Most recently, not long after Alito was accused of leaking the decision he authored that overturned abortion rights, the New York Times reported he had fed advance information about another ruling he penned — this one restricting access to birth control — to wealthy, evangelical donors over dinner in 2014.
Then there’s Brett Kavanaugh. The justice’s unhinged speech at his confirmation — in which he appeared near tears as he blasted a “calculated and orchestrated political hit” against him done as “revenge on behalf of the Clintons,” before wailing that “what goes around comes around” — already did much to undermine any sense of political impartiality.
But there’s also his appearance with a number of Trump world figures at a party hosted by the head of the Conservative Political Action Coalition (CPAC) and the mystery of the justice’s vanishing credit card debt. Kavanaugh disclosed somewhere between $60,000-200,000 of total debt in 2016, with three credit cards on which he owed between $15,000-50,000 each, only for them all to be suddenly paid off or dramatically down a year later.
Just like his strangely opulent lifestyle, it didn’t square with the judge and his wife’s exceedingly comfortable but far from ultrawealthy household income. Neither did the fact that Kavanaugh later seemed to contradict the White House’s explanation for the disappearing debt. We’ll probably never know for sure how Kavanaugh ended up with this financial windfall and whether he, too, has an ultrarich benefactor looking out for him.
Other than Roberts, none of these right-wing justices have tried to hide their friendly affiliation with the Federalist Society. All but Thomas attended the group’s celebratory fortieth anniversary dinner shortly after gutting the right to abortion, where they received a rapturous ovation. Thomas, like the others, has appeared at multiple Federalist Society events in the past, plus events sponsored by corporate advocacy groups like the American Enterprise Institute and Hoover Institution. Meanwhile Roberts, while sensible enough to understand how bad this looks and avoiding doing the same, was once listed in the Federalist Society’s leadership directory, a fact the justice unconvincingly claimed he had no memory of.
This would all be bad enough by itself. But it’s worse when you consider that we know this kind of elite hobnobbing is exactly how right-wing activists work to influence the court. Rob Schenck — a former conservative activist and the same man whose donors passed on Alito’s tip-off about his 2014 decision — described a strategy of recruiting wealthy donors to invite justices to meals, vacation homes, and clubs, or accost them at events they had donated money to get invited to, and try to subtly shape their thinking in one-on-one conversations.
Schneck disclosed that he’d organized twenty rich couples over the years to fly to Washington and schmooze with justices, including one couple who paid for multiple glitzy dinners with Thomas and Alito, among others, and their wives. It was all done with the aim of fostering an “ecosystem of support” that would encourage them to be more bold in their conservative judicial activism, he said.
This is particularly significant because the court’s hard-right supermajority isn’t just aiming at advancing a socially conservative agenda. Some of its most important, if less-high profile, work aims at unshackling corporate power, and it appears to be gearing up to gut the modern regulatory state that has allowed federal agencies to rein in rapacious business practices since the New Deal.
A Rogue Court
What this all means is that the corruption and rot that the ProPublica story revealed about Thomas is far from unique to him. The Supreme Court’s hard-right majority is not only explicitly aligned with one of the country’s two leading partisan factions, but shows signs of having come under the sway of the very big-money interests looking to use the court to grow their power over ordinary Americans. Worse, the court seems incapable of checking this behavior, while those justices engaging in it seem more and more unconcerned about flouting basic ethical norms or even maintaining a public image of propriety.
The Biden administration seems disinclined to take on the Supreme Court, even as it guts his party’s achievements, out of fear it would erode the institution’s public standing and legitimacy. The question is how long it can avoid doing so. The court’s increasingly scandalous behavior has already inflicted severe damage on both.