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Clarence Thomas Responds

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas almost never asks questions during oral hearings. His silence is legendary. He believes that the opposing lawyers should make their cases in their respective briefs and that oral hearings aren't even needed. But now that it has come out that he has happily accepted vacation travel worth half a million dollars from a wealthy Republican megadonor, Harlan Crow, he's kind of in the hot seat. Especially since he never reported it. So, the Justice decided to break his normal silence and comment on the matter. He said that Crow and his wife are "among our dearest friends, and we have been friends for over twenty-five years. As friends do, we have joined them on a number of family trips during the more than quarter century we have known them." He also said that he sought guidance from other judges about whether personal hospitality from friends who did not have business before the Court was reportable and they told him it was not.

In fairness to Thomas, up until last month the rules for judges were fairly vague about what was reportable and what was not. Last month they were tightened and only hospitality at a friend's home can be omitted from reports about gifts. Still, getting so much valuable travel from a Republican megadonor ought to have been a signal to report it, just to be safe. Especially since Thomas did tend to report these benefits until the Los Angeles Times did a story about the perks Thomas was accepting. That was 18 years ago; thereafter he virtually never mentioned anything on his disclosures. A skeptic might just conclude that his policy on disclosures was not dictated by advice from colleagues but by the desire to keep the press from taking notice of the gifts.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees the federal courts, was furious when he learned about Thomas' free travel. Whitehouse said: "This Supreme Court has lost its ethical compass. It's no wonder that the American people are losing faith in the idea that they can get a fair shake before the nation's highest court when they see a Supreme Court justice openly flouting basic disclosure rules in order to pal around with billionaires in secret." The chairman of the full Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), wasn't any kinder. Durbin said: "This behavior is simply inconsistent with the ethical standards the American people expect of any public servant, let alone a Justice on the Supreme Court." Whitehouse and Durbin are both planning to introduce legislation to create new ethical standards for the judiciary. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who chairs the subcommittee that oversees funding for the federal courts, also wasn't a happy camper. He said: "It is unacceptable that the Supreme Court has exempted itself from the accountability that applies to all other members of our federal courts, and I believe Congress should act to remedy this problem." No doubt one or more bills will be introduced, but passing the Senate will be a problem because Republican senators will see them as a slap in the face to Thomas. Getting them through the House will be even harder.

Some Democrats want to go further than creating mandatory codes of ethics. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has called for Thomas to be impeached. She said that if other members of Congress don't introduce articles of impeachment, she will. She also noted that if Thomas has been friends with Crow for 25 years, then that friendship began after Thomas was put on the Court, which was 30 years ago. That is already a red flag. She also wants to know which judges Thomas consulted with who told him taking favors from billionaires in secret was fine.

This is not Thomas' first brush with controversy. His wife, Ginni Thomas, was active in the "Stop the steal" movement and the other activities related to Donald Trump's attempt to steal the 2020 election. She was in active contact with John Eastman, the lawyer who came up with the fake electors scheme. The Jan. 6 panel wanted the e-mails and text messages between Ginni Thomas and Eastman and the case made it to the Supreme Court. Not only did Thomas refuse to recuse himself from a case involving his wife, but he voted against giving the panel the documents. The other eight justices voted to give the panel what it wanted. If even Samuel Alito thought that the panel had a right to get the documents, did Thomas have some reason other than the possible implication of his wife in a crime? (V)

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