First published in The Hill.
And the hits just keep on coming.
Recently, after receiving an extension on the deadline to file legally-required disclosures for 2022, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas submitted records that reveal yet more favors and perks from billionaire Harlan Crowe, including details that went unreported in years past.
The discovery that Thomas is even more ethically compromised than we had thought (which we could have accurately described as a lot) is more than disheartening. The dam first broke on the Thomas ethics scandal thanks to extensive reporting by the news outlet Pro Publica. But it shouldn’t take relentless investigative reporting to get Supreme Court justices to disclose essential information like this.
Something’s got to give.
And at this point it’s clear; Justice Thomas himself is and always will be incorrigible when it comes to ethics. He will not show contrition. He will not step down. So we should stop focusing on shaming or scolding him. It is going to fall to others to impose accountability: the Supreme Court itself, Congress, the Justice Department or all three. And right now we are seeing a lack of action on all fronts.
Chief Justice John Roberts’s answer to calls that the court fix its ethics problem has been maddeningly, even ridiculously, tepid. He has called the scandals “an issue of concern.” There has been no movement from the court to propose a binding code of ethics for itself. As we all know by now, Supreme Court justices are the only federal judges in the United States not officially bound by the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges. As Nikki Haley would say, “and it shows.”
In Congress, Senate Democrats have been pushing for legislation to create a binding code of ethics for the Supreme Court. Earlier this year, they even got a bill passed out of committee. But Republicans are unanimously opposed. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who has built a career on quips like this, called the bill “dead as fried chicken” in the full Senate. As for impeachment, we know it’s off the table in a Republican-controlled House.
That leaves the Justice Department, which has been quiet so far. I’ve written before that the law clearly authorizes the DOJ to pursue both civil penalties and criminal fines from government officials who fail to report gifts as legally required. The Justice Department has grounds to investigate Thomas under this federal disclosure law. Earlier this summer, a group of congressional Democrats called on the DOJ to open an investigation, but we’ve still heard no response. That’s frustrating because the Justice Department offers what is probably our best hope of seeing corrective action at this point.
Meanwhile, in a refrain that has become familiar on the right, a lawyer for Justice Thomas blasted the justice’s critics this week for “weaponized” ethics allegations. And there’s been a lot of back-and-forth about whether Crowe ever had business before the court himself, with Thomas denying it and subsequent reporting showing the truth is less than clear.
But that’s not even the point. One of the things that people find so corrupt isn’t whether particular billionaires were named parties in cases before Thomas. It’s that their economic and political interests were immensely affected by cases before Thomas regardless of whether they were named parties. Thomas is rewriting our laws and our Constitution to benefit the wealthiest class of people — the same class that underwrites a lifestyle that might have made Louis XIV jealous.
It’s no surprise that polls show a 56 percent disapproval rating for the Supreme Court. And for an institution that, as Hamilton said, doesn’t have either “the sword or the purse” to impose its authority, trust is the only currency.
By that measure, this court is rapidly going broke — while individual members live in the lap of luxury.