There’s blood in the water around the Supreme Court now and investigative journalists are swarming, finding all the fodder they need for a scandal in the form of Justice Clarence Thomas alone. The latest addition to the Thomas corruption chronicles is The New York Times’ exposé on his long-standing membership in the Horatio Alger Association, one that netted him a whole new raft of generous, wealthy friends spending lavishly to provide him a luxurious lifestyle. As the circle of Thomas’ rich and powerful associates grows, so grows the likelihood of conflicts of interest for him on the court and the likelihood the media will be able to dig them up. Each new discovery will only deepen the crisis in the court and generate more momentum for reform.
Previous reporting from ProPublica shows just how susceptible Thomas is to very rich people who want to give him big-ticket items like luxury vacations, in particular his longtime friend Harlan Crow, the Texas billionaire who also likes to spend his largesse on right-wing dark money groups. Crow has funded not only lavish vacations and private plane rides, but made life easier for Thomas with real estate deals, paying tuition for Thomas’ ward to attend private school, and generally enriching Thomas’ life. Crow even pays the rent on the home where Thomas’ mother currently lives. That was all highly questionable, made more so by Thomas’ failure to report any of these gifts in financial disclosures, but not a clear-cut conflict of interest for Thomas. Crow hasn’t had much business before the court, though he has funded organizations that take an interest in various right-wing legal efforts.
The Horatio Alger Association is potentially different, chock-full of rich and powerful people—most of them conservative donors to political causes—who also enjoy the privilege of providing a Supreme Court justice with a lavish life.
Over the years, his Horatio Alger friends have welcomed him at their vacation retreats, arranged V.I.P. access to sporting events and invited him to their lavish parties. In 2004, he joined celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Ed McMahon at a three-day 70th birthday bash in Montana for the industrialist Dennis Washington. Several Horatio Alger friends also helped finance the marketing of a hagiographic documentary about the justice in the wake of an HBO film that had resurfaced Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against him during his confirmation.
The Times report is full of the stuff we’ve come to expect from Thomas stories: his continuing simmering rage at having been perceived as getting to where he is through affirmative action and the resulting chip on his shoulder, as well as his susceptibility to very rich people who want to give him stuff, which he clearly feels is owed to him, up to and including his wedding reception.
Thomas is also clearly willing to reciprocate. He has literally opened the Supreme Court chamber to the society, conducting induction ceremonies there. “He really seemed to like the fact that everyone else enjoys being in the courtroom,” said Anthony Hutcherson, a former events coordinator and communications specialist for the association. “[H]e could give them that, and nobody else could,” Hutcherson said, speaking of the rich and powerful people Thomas was hobnobbing with.
Unsurprisingly, Thomas hasn’t disclosed the gifts, tickets, and trips from his friends in the Horatio Alger society. Not disclosing the gifts means not disclosing conflicts of interest, with members of the society and its larger circle likely to end up before the court with an interest in cases the Supreme Court is hearing.
The appearance of corruption on the court from Thomas alone is enough to spur calls for reform. Justice Samuel Alito has ethical questions of his own given that his wealthy benefactors definitely have regular business before the court. Add in the obvious partisan politics of the majority, and you have to wonder what the hell is wrong with Chief Justice John Roberts, letting all this continue on his watch.
It’s gotten so blatant that groups on the left that have been afraid to take on the court before, fearing blowback when they go before it, are joining together to demand court reform. Organizations and labor unions including Planned Parenthood, SEIU, AFT, NEA, and NARAL have created a coalition called United for Democracy specifically to push court reform. They are also demanding formal congressional investigations and hearings into Supreme Court corruption.
“Every time this Supreme Court issues another extremist decision, the Court loses legitimacy, judicial norms wither, our freedoms shrink, corporate power grows, our democracy fades—and the American people pay the price,” the coalition said in a letter to congressional leaders. In the wake of recent revelations of egregious impropriety by justices and this latest disastrous Supreme Court term, Congress must step up to conduct robust investigations and coordinated formal hearings into corruption, dark money, and interest-driven judicial activism at the Supreme Court in order to inform legislative action to bring true transparency and accountability to this broken court.
We’re at a breaking point for the court. The media sees a very rich target for stories, and they’re not going to stop looking now. There will be more revelations about what they’re getting up to. Confidence in the court will continue to plummet as the stories are published and the ramifications of the court’s extremist decisions ripple outward.
Should the trifecta be restored in 2025, a Democratic Congress and president are not going to have a choice on court reform. It’s case closed. And they had better start getting ready for it now.
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