The New York Times' report this weekend highlighted just one of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's problems with ethics.
[Justice Clarence Thomas and real estate magnate Harlan Crow] met in the mid-1990s, a few years after Justice Thomas joined the court. Since then, Mr. Crow has done many favors for the justice and his wife, Virginia, helping finance a Savannah library project dedicated to Justice Thomas, presenting him with a Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass and reportedly providing $500,000 for Ms. Thomas to start a Tea Party-related group. They have also spent time together at gatherings of prominent Republicans and businesspeople at Mr. Crow’s Adirondacks estate and his camp in East Texas.
In several instances, news reports of Mr. Crow’s largess provoked controversy and questions, adding fuel to a rising debate about Supreme Court ethics. But Mr. Crow’s financing of the museum, his largest such act of generosity, previously unreported, raises the sharpest questions yet — both about Justice Thomas’s extrajudicial activities and about the extent to which the justices should remain exempt from the code of conduct for federal judges.
This is just one in a growing list of ethical problems for Thomas:
Unethical Fundraising: The Code of Conduct does not allow judges to “personally participate in fund-raising activities, solicit funds for any organization, or use or permit the use of the prestige of judicial office for that purpose,” except in very limited circumstances. Yet Justice Thomas attended a Koch-sponsored political fundraiser intended to fund the conservative infrastructure of front groups, political campaigns, think tanks and media outlets. This attendance is technically legal, because of the justices exemption from the Code of Conduct, but the justices claim that they have long followed a policy of “look[ing] to the Code of Conduct for guidance” in determining when they may participate in fundraising activities.
Failure to Disclose: Federal judges and justices are required by law to disclose their spouse’s income — thus preventing persons who wish to influence the judge or justice from funneling money to them through their husband or wife. Nevertheless, Thomas falsely claimed that his wife Ginni — a lobbyist and high-earning member of the professional right — earned no non-investment income whatsoever while she was working at the right-wing Heritage Foundation. When asked to explain this error, Thomas — who is one of the nine people responsible for issuing binding interpretations of the nation’s founding document — claimed that he “misunderst[ood] the filing instructions.”
Potential Conflict of Interest: Ginni Thomas used to lead an organization that vigorously opposes the Affordable Care Act, and she even briefly signed a memo calling that Act unconstitutional. Ginni also may be earning lobbying fees for working to have this Act repealed. A team of conservative lawyers recently argued that such activities by a judge’s spouse requires the judge to recuse from the lawsuits challenging the ACA, but a defiant speech Thomas gave to the conservative Federalist Society leaves little doubt that he will not recuse.
A Financial Stake in His Own Decisions?: Ginni Thomas may also be getting rich off of her husband’s vote in the infamous Citizens United decision — which freed corporations to spend billions of dollars to buy U.S. elections. Ginni’s new lobbying firm “offers advice on optimizing political investments for charitable giving in the non-profit world or political causes,” a line of work which has obviously become much more lucrative since Citizens United.
But this one is rather extreme, and as Ian Millhiser points out, is the kind of conduct that has forced a Justice to resign.
[T]he Thomas scandal is little more than a remake of the forty year-old gifting scandal that brought down Justice Abe Fortas. Like Thomas, Fortas liked to associate with wealthy individuals with potential business before his Court. And like Thomas, Fortas took inappropriate gifts from his wealthy benefactors....
It is difficult to distinguish Fortas’ scandal from Thomas’. Like Fortas, Thomas accepted several very valuable gifts from parties who are frequently interested in the outcome of federal court cases. One of Thomas’ benefactors has even filed briefs in his Court since giving Thomas a $15,000 gift, and Thomas has not recused himself from each of these cases....
But Thomas’ disregard for what has come before him changes nothing about the precedent he faces. If Abe Fortas had to resign his seat, so too should Clarence Thomas.
The Supreme Court should be subject to the same code of conduct as other federal judges. And Thomas should be forced to resign his seat. It's obvious he won't recuse himself from the cases where he has a glaring conflict of interest. The appearance of corruption on the nation's highest court seems not to concern him, but it should certainly concern the rest of it.