Clarence Thomas Broke the Law and It Isn't Even Close - 2023-04-06
ProPublica's scrupulously reported new piece on Justice Clarence Thomas' decadeslong luxury travel on the dime of a single GOP megadonor will probably not shock you at all. Sure, the dollar amounts spent are astronomical, and of course the justice failed to report any of it, and of course the megadonor insists that he and Thomas are dear old friends, so of course the superyacht and the flights on the Bombardier Global 5000 jet and the resorts are all perfectly benign. So while the details are shocking, the pattern here is hardly a new one. This is a longstanding ethics loophole that has been exploited by parties with political interests in cases before the court to curry favor in exchange for astonishing junkets and perks. It is allowed to happen.
We will doubtless spend a few news cycles expressing outrage that Harlan Crow has spent millions of dollars lavishing the Thomases with lux vacations and high-end travel and barely pretended to separate business and pleasure, giving half a million dollars to a Tea Party group founded by Ginni Thomas in 2011 (which funded her own $120,000 salary). But because the justices are left to police themselves and opt not to do so, we will turn to other matters in due time. Before the outrage dries up, however, it is worth zeroing in on two aspects of the ProPublica report that do have lasting legal implications. First, the same people who benefited from the lax status quo continue to fight against any meaningful reforms that might curb the justices' gravy train. Second, the rules governing Thomas' conduct over these years, while terribly insufficient, actually did require him to disclose at least some of these extravagant gifts. The fact that he ignored the rules anyway illustrates just how difficult it will be to force the justices to obey the law: Without the strong threat of enforcement, a putative public servant like Thomas will thumb his nose at the law.
If there is a single image that captures this seedy state of affairs, it is a painting of Thomas hanging out with Leonard Leo (Federalist Society co-chair and judicial power broker) and Mark Paoletta (who has served as chief counsel to former Vice President Mike Pence and general counsel of Donald Trump's Office of Management and Budget). Both are political operatives, though Crow assures us that they would never dare talk about Thomas' work. This image should be enough to shock anyone into taking action against the spigot of dark money that flows directly from billionaire donors into the court, its justices, and their spouses' pockets. Continuing to live as though there is nothing to be done about any of this is a choice. We make it every day.