By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
It’s been a busy few weeks for members of the Supreme Court. On Arizona’s public financing law, Chief Justice John Roberts was, unfortunately, busy looking for another way to grease the skids for corporate campaign contributions. On video games, Justice Antonin Scalia was, fortunately, busy crafting a strong stand on free speech. And on California prisons, Justice Anthony Kennedy was, honorably, busy cleaning house.
Unlike his fellow justices, meanwhile, Justice Clarence Thomas was busy looking for his next handout. When will conservatives finally admit that Thomas is a monumental embarrassment — and should resign from the court?
Nobody believed President George H.W. Bush back in July 1991 when he introduced Thomas as the “most qualified” judge in the land to sit on the court. But few at the time suspected Thomas would also prove himself the “most unethical” justice to sit on the court since Abe Fortas, forced to resign in 1970 for accepting corporate contributions — much like Thomas does today.
Questions about Thomas’ corporate conflicts first arose regarding Liberty Central, a conservative think tank founded by his wife Virginia. As Virginia herself boasted, Liberty Central’s main role was to oppose health care reform and climate change legislation promoted by President Obama. “This guy has turned hard left, and we need to stand up and realize what’s at stake here,” she told supporters at the time.
Conservatives, without a peep of protest, accepted the fact that the wife of a Supreme Court justice was accepting corporate contributions to lead a campaign against the president of the United States on two issues that would ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court. But can you imagine what howls of protest would have been heard had Mrs. Stephen Breyer led a similar campaign against George W. Bush?
More recent accounts of conflict, however, concern Justice Thomas himself. Think Progress reports that in 2001, the American Enterprise Institute gave Thomas a bust of Abraham Lincoln worth $15,000. At the time, AEI was also involved in three cases before the Supreme Court. Thomas recused himself from none of the three. Think Progress was also the first to report Thomas’ attendance at a top-secret corporate fundraising conference held in Palm Springs in January 2008 and hosted by Charles and David Koch.
But that’s not all. The New York Times has revealed extensive, and troubling, connections between Thomas and big-time Dallas developer Harlan Crow. One of the nation’s leading conservative donors, Mr. Crow has been especially generous to Justice Thomas: entertaining him and his wife on his plane, yacht, and Adirondacks vacation estate. He contributed $175,000 to a Savannah, Ga., library for a project dedicated to Thomas. In 2001, he gave the justice a Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass, valued at $19,000. He reportedly contributed $500,000 to Mrs. Thomas for Liberty Central. And, at the justice’s request, he almost single-handedly funded construction of a multimillion-dollar new museum in Thomas’ hometown of Pin Point, Ga.
Again, the problem is that Crow was also, at the same time, a major donor to two organizations — the American Enterprise Institute, mentioned above, and the Project on Fair Representation — which filed supporting briefs in several cases before the Supreme Court, which Thomas helped decide.
For any other judge in the land, such activities and coziness with major donors would be cause for reprimand or removal from the bench. The judicial code of conduct says judges “should not personally participate” in raising money for charitable concerns. They’re not even supposed to know who contributes money to projects honoring them.
Ah, but therein lies the rub. The judicial code of conduct applies to all judges except Supreme Court justices, who have conveniently exempted themselves from its provisions, while vowing to observe the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. Thomas has done neither.
Even if not bound by the code, we still expect members of the Supreme Court, like elected officials, to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest. After all, they enjoy a lifetime appointment and a $214,000 annual salary with full health and retirement benefits. They don’t have to grub for corporate handouts.
Maybe Thomas should learn from his wife. When she left Liberty Central, Virginia Thomas was eagerly given a new job by Tucker Carlson on his website, The Daily Caller. Were Justice Thomas to do the right thing and resign from the court, I’m sure Carlson would jump at the chance to find a job for him too.
© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.