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Today's Corruption News, Part II: Clarence Thomas

Clarence Thomas also continues to make plenty of the wrong kind of headlines. This is courtesy, primarily, of ProPublica, which is surely going to be a serious contender for the Pulitzer for investigative reporting this year (which, if it comes to pass, would be the organization's seventh).

The latest report starts with this photo, which led the staff historian to become disoriented for a moment, and then to say: "Wait. Is that Clarence Thomas and David Koch with... documentarian Ken Burns?":

Clarence Thomas, Ken Burns and David Koch at a garden party

It is indeed Burns, whose films have been financed in part by donations from Koch. We have no idea what Burns' politics are (we would have guessed left-leaning), but it's not terribly surprising that a libertarian/conservative would find plenty to like in Burns' work. It's all war, sports, biographies and music for the last three decades, after all. Though we're guessing that Koch took a pass on the two-thirds of The Roosevelts that covered Eleanor and Franklin. Maybe the one-third that covered Theodore, too, since the Rough Rider may have been a Republican, but he was also known for kicking fat-cat corporate types right in the teeth.

In any event, the point of the photo is that Thomas attended at least two of the Koch brothers' donor summits. The purpose of the summits is to get members of the Koch network excited about what the organization is doing, and to raise millions and millions of dollars in donations. The purpose of inviting Thomas, at very least, is to goose the fundraising take by making attendees feel like they're part of the in-crowd, and are rubbing elbows with powerful and important people.

There is another probable reason for the Kochs to get up close and personal with Thomas. As you might imagine, they sometimes have direct business before the Supreme Court, or else cases that they are not involved in but where they desire a particular result. In particular, the Kochs have long lobbied against Chevron v. NRDC (1984), a rather major decision that said that the courts should avoid interfering with the regulations laid down by executive agencies, unless those rules are outright unconstitutional. In 2005, before he was hobnobbing with the Kochs, Thomas actually wrote a majority decision in a case that upheld and expanded Chevron. In 2020, after appearing at the Koch summits (not to mention multiple dozen men-only, ultra-insider soirees hosted by billionaire Harlan Crow), Thomas decided that Chevron is wrong, that it needs to go, and that SCOTUS should take a case that will allow that to happen.

Certainly, reasonable people can change their views on things. And maybe that is what happened here. But it does not look good when a justice is more than willing to embrace the perks offered to him by billionaires. It looks even worse when he "forgets" to include the trips on his disclosure forms (as he did with both of the known Koch trips, and all of the known Crow trips). It gets worse still when the justice, or his spokespeople, say they are shocked that anyone could think that any of this was problematic. If the response was: "We can understand the concerns, particularly when viewed from the outside, but be assured that this was just a social occasion," that might be taken as an honest statement. But when it's "How could you possibly think something shady went on here?" it sounds like someone who is selling something.

In any case, Thomas has clearly learned how to approach the line without crossing it enough to get into trouble. Or actually, what he's probably learned is that there really is no line. No matter what ProPublica comes up with, we just don't see how it is going to lead either Congress (with its Senate filibuster) or Chief Justice John Roberts & Co. to either sanction Thomas for his acceptance of handouts, or to change the rules such that future handouts are off the table. (Z)

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