Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Clarence Thomas caught a lucky break last week, with a news cycle dominated by the attack on Israel and the collapse of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. That meant the latest blockbuster story from ProPublica about the conservatives’ court benefactor, Leonard Leo, as well as Thomas’ hijinks went relatively unreported.
The extensive ProPublica story details the extent to which the whole conservative judicial establishment—from state supreme courts all the way up the ladder of federal courts—has been constructed by Leo and the ultraconservative millionaires and billionaires he’s recruited to the project. In the article, there’s a nugget about Thomas that’s worth highlighting:
On a chilly day in March 2017, about six weeks into Trump’s presidency, Leo arranged for a select group to have a private audience with Justice Clarence Thomas at the U.S. Supreme Court. The attendees were a group of high-net-worth donors who had been organized by [billionaire hedge-fund manager Paul] Singer to marshal huge resources toward electing Republicans and pushing conservative causes. That afternoon, the donors spoke with Thomas. The previously unreported meeting was described by a person familiar with it and corroborated by planning documents.
That’s Leo and Singer using the actual U.S. Supreme Court building, not to mention access to one of the justices, to fundraise for Republicans and their causes. Those causes include legal challenges—to voting rights, to abortion rights, to marriage equality, to environmental and consumer protections—that will work their way through the courts to be decided by Thomas and the other justices Leo put there.
Speaking of those cases, the court will consider at least four this session in which Thomas benefactor Harlan Crow has an interest. In case you’re wondering, no, Thomas hasn’t recused from any of them. Crow is the billionaire Texan who is BFFs with Thomas and has shown his friendship over the years via hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of largesse, everything from paying the private school tuition for Thomas’s ward to sweetheart real estate deals to providing luxury trips.
AccountableUS research details four cases pending at the court in which Crow has an interest through his real estate firm, Crow Holdings, and a subsidiary founded by Crows’ father, Trammell Crow Residential. Those cases include Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, CFPB v. CFSA, Moore v. United States, and Acheson Hotels, LLC v. Laufer. These are all cases in which big corporate money—or millionaires and billionaires—are fighting everything from environmental protections to the tax code to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Either directly through his businesses or indirectly through the complex web of dark money in which he is enmeshed, Crow is involved in these cases, and Thomas will be participating in deciding them.
Finally, last week Thomas also continued his ongoing crusade against the First Amendment protections granted in 1964’s New York Times v. Sullivan, another landmark civil rights era precedent he wants to see overturned. The court refused to hear a case, Blankenship v. NBC Universal, challenging the Sullivan precedent. In 1964, the court established that a public official could not recover damages in a defamation action absent a showing of actual malice. That made it much harder to sue the media, creating an “elevated standard,” Thomas said in his statement on Blankenship. The court “usurped control over libel law” in Sullivan, Thomas wrote, which he claimed was not based “in the original meaning of the First Amendment.”
Gee, now why would Thomas want to impose free speech limits on the press?
Thomas continues to thumb his nose at the very idea of behaving ethically on the court, even as the evidence of his corruption piles up. He’s particularly disrespecting Roberts, who continues to insist that everything is just peachy at the court. The justices, he told the Senate earlier this year, all subscribe to the court’s Statement of Ethics Principles and Practices, the tepid and unenforceable guidelines the Supreme Court has in place of an actual code of ethics.
After a session in which Thomas is likely to vote to strike down decades of precedent on behalf of his rich, powerful, and highly partisan friends, Roberts might have to rethink that whole ethics issue.
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