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It’s called corruption

Justice Clarence Thomas proves the need for tougher disclosure rules


The revelations centered around Justice Clarence Thomas and his involvement with right-wing billionaire Harlan Crow went from bad to worse in recent days, as ProPublica reported that Crow had purchased a modest home in Georgia in 2014 for $133,363, made substantial improvements to the home and continues to allow the previous owner to reside there.
That home just happened to belong to Thomas, a deceased sibling, and his elderly mother who still lives in the home.
Despite clear and unequivocal federal reporting requirements pertaining to real estate transactions involving federal judges, Thomas never reported the sale of the home to his sugar daddy, Crow.
It was no oversight. Thomas, in his early years on the court, had been relatively diligent about reporting gifts he had received, which include things like free travel.
But after news reports some twenty years ago cast an unflattering light on the nature of some of those gifts, Thomas stopped reporting for the most part, even as the scale of the gifts (including tens of thousands of dollars in cash for the sale of his mother’s home) grew. Thomas knew the law— he just ignored it.
Thomas has not denied any of the ProPublica reporting, which is as well documented as it is astonishing. As ProPublica revealed late last month, Thomas has, for years, accepted lavish vacations, paid for entirely by Crow, including international travel on Crow’s private jet, extended stays on his luxury yacht, and regularly week-long soirees at private resorts owned by Crow’s various companies.
Thomas, instead, claims that all of this luxury travel didn’t require reporting under the exemption for “personal hospitality,” which was supposed to exempt reporting of things like a nice dinner, maybe even with an expensive bottle of wine, enjoyed at a friend’s home. It was never intended to exempt reporting of a judge’s luxury travel totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and potentially millions of dollars over the course of the past two decades. ProPublica reported that a single trip to Indonesia, that included several days on Crow’s super yacht, would have cost $500,000 for anyone who wasn’t a Supreme Court justice.
Thomas suggests no-harm, no-foul on the travel because Crow didn’t have any matters before the court, but that’s simply false. Crow is a mega-donor to far right causes and organizations. He may not have had matters affecting him directly before the court, but he had a laundry list of policy objectives and he had Thomas’s undivided attention for days and sometimes weeks at a time— all of it purchased by Crow. What’s more, Crow sometimes invited others from the world of conservative activism on these various junkets, enveloping Thomas in a regular mash-up of ultra conservative ideology. Whether all this largesse was an effort to influence Thomas or was simply a reward for his continued fealty to the far-right cause, it was unseemly at best, and very arguably illegal because it was never reported.
Conservatives who aren’t bothered by Thomas’s actions should ask themselves how they’d view this scenario if it had been the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg or current justices Elena Kagan or Sonia Sotomayor, who had spent decades accepting and failing to report luxury travel and real estate sales paid for by, say, one George Soros, another billionaire with political objectives, albeit on the liberal side of the spectrum. Fox News would be declaring a ten-alarm fire, 24 hours a day, seven days a week— and we all know it.
Yet, because Thomas reliably does the right-wing’s bidding, his actions are given a free pass by Republicans.
Of course, Thomas’s excuses don’t wash at all when it comes to the revelation regarding the real estate transaction. Thomas may try to steer a yacht through the “personal hospitality” loophole, but that won’t fly when it comes to a real estate transaction. That was reportable, and Thomas knew it.
There is a very simple term for a public official who is entrusted with authority and takes advantage of their high office to benefit themselves— it’s called corruption, and Thomas has become its poster child.
All of this comes at a time when the Supreme Court is already seen as an increasingly political institution in the wake of the three Trump appointments, which turned the court toward a disturbing version of Christian nationalist authoritarianism, with virtually no fealty to law, precedent, or the Constitution. We know, unfortunately, that this high court is unlikely to police itself. Which means saving the court and its reputation will be up to Congress, which should immediately investigate how far this kind of activity extends on the court, and put tougher rules in place for both disclosure and judicial recusal, another guidepost routinely flouted by Thomas.
The Supreme Court can survive as a key U.S. institution even if it is seen as imperfect. It can’t survive if it is seen as corrupt.