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Today in Extremely Bad Judgment...

It is not a secret that there are, in effect, no rules governing the behavior of Supreme Court justices. They are a law unto themselves, both literally and figuratively, and the only real check upon them is an expectation that they uphold the ethical standards of their high office. That is a situation ripe for abuse, and there have certain been justices in the past who behaved in deeply problematic ways, among them Roger Taney, James Clark McReynolds, William O. Douglas and Abe Fortas. But it is entirely possible that Clarence Thomas has now left them in the dust.

Yesterday, ProPublica issued a bombshell new report on some of the extra benefits that the Associate Justice has been enjoying thanks to the largesse of at least one well-heeled friend, Republican megadonor Harlan Crow. For years and years, apparently, Crow has been lavishing luxury vacations upon Thomas and his wife Ginny. For example, in 2019, the Thomases were flown on a private jet to Indonesia, where they boarded a private yacht staffed by numerous attendants and a private chef. They then spent 9 days island-hopping. The total price tag for something like this? Roughly $500,000. That is just about double Thomas' annual salary of $268,300.

Thomas, of course, doesn't ask questions when a case is before the Court. And he certainly doesn't answer questions when reporters ask why he's accepting six (or seven) figures' worth of perks from a billionaire. So, he had no comment yesterday. Crow, for his part, issued a statement: "We have never sought to influence Justice Thomas on any legal or political issue." This is, of course, absolutely meaningless. First of all, there is zero chance Crow is going to admit to it, and say: "Whoops! Yep, I was totally buying influence, and I got caught. My bad!" Second, even if what Crow says is technically true (and, odds are, it is), Thomas certainly knows what Crow's political agenda is, even if it's never directly raised in conversation.

Meanwhile, although Thomas is performing his "strong, silent type" bit, there is at least one indication that he knows full well he crossed a bright, red line: He failed to mention some sizable portion of these free perks on his annual financial disclosures. It's actually unclear exactly how much has gone undisclosed, because there are many flights and other gifts that would not have appeared on the documentation that ProPublica acquired. In any event, accepting gifts that have a higher value than your annual salary and then hiding that from the government is against the law.

As readers are well aware, this is hardly Thomas' first foray into unethical behavior. Most obviously, the lines between his and his wife's political activism, on one hand, and his career, on the other, are far, far too blurry. In addition, he's also accepted honoraria and other payments that certainly approached the line, and may have crossed it. And who knows what other buddies he has out there who are funding his lifestyle? Maybe Crow is the only one, but it would be rather unusual to accept gifts from just one wealthy "admirer" and to say "no" to the rest.

All of this said, the odds that Thomas pays any price at all for his misdeeds is very small. We cannot imagine what he would have to do in order to be impeached by the Republican-controlled House, and then to get at least 16 GOP votes to convict in the Senate, especially with a Democratic president in line to choose his replacement. However, we are certain that accepting illegal benefits is not enough to get him kicked. The only possibility we can see is if Thomas ends up being charged with a crime and convicted; that might cause him to resign, or might be enough for him to be impeached. There have been members of Congress who were prosecuted and convicted for that basic crime, most recently Jeff Fortenberry, who was booted out of the House last year. But going after a Supreme Court justice is a whole different ball of wax, and even if Thomas was indicted and convicted, we suspect he would keep his seat and Congressional Republicans would support him in that. That is undoubtedly better, in their view, than allowing a Democrat to take over. (Z)

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