ProPublica’s investigative report titled, “A Delicate Matter,” revealed that Thomas, previously under scrutiny for failing to report gifts from prominent Republican donors, raised concerns about the financial strain on justices and advocated for removing a law prohibiting judges from receiving speaking and other fees.
By Stacy M. Brown
NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent
As Democrats intensify their call for Justice Clarence Thomas to recuse himself from the case scrutinizing Donald Trump’s potential immunity, recent findings from legal advocacy group ProPublica have added a new layer of complexity to the ethical challenges surrounding the Supreme Court justice. ProPublica’s investigative report titled, “A Delicate Matter,” revealed that Thomas, previously under scrutiny for failing to report gifts from prominent Republican donors, raised concerns about the financial strain on justices and advocated for removing a law prohibiting judges from receiving speaking and other fees.
Hank Johnson, a representative for the House of Democrats, is calling for Thomas’s recusal because of doubts about his objectivity in the case involving Trump’s immunity from federal prosecution. The letter, dated December 15, underscored the Democrats’ apprehension, particularly considering the activities of Thomas’s wife and the couple’s post-2020 election activities, raising questions about the justice’s ability to remain unbiased.
“Faith in the Supreme Court has plummeted, and fewer than half of all Americans trust the Supreme Court,” Johnson wrote in the letter to Thomas. “Public perception is growing that the Supreme Court flouts the rules, in large part due to your recently reported ties to and luxury travel with billionaire Republican donors that you hid for decades. The public pressure has grown so intense that last month the Supreme Court announced a formal, though unenforceable, Code of Conduct.”
Johnson reminded Thomas that he also signed the Code, publicly proclaiming that he subscribed to the rules, which state that “A Justice should disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the Justice’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned, that is, where an unbiased and reasonable person who is aware of all relevant circumstances would doubt that the Justice could fairly discharge his or her duties.”
The Code details such instances, including those in which ‘The Justice or Justice’s spouse… is known by the Justice… to have an interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding; or likely to be a material witness in the proceeding.”
Johnson then detailed Ginni Thomas’s involvement with the twice-impeached and four-times indicted former president’s alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election and to obstruct its certification—the very conspiracies at issue in this case.
“Your wife not only attended the pro-Trump rally that preceded the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol, but she was also one of nine board members for a conservative political group that helped lead the ‘Stop the Steal’ movement,” Johnson asserted. “If you want to show the American people that the Supreme Court’s recent Code of Conduct is worth more than the paper it is written on, you must do the honorable thing and recuse yourself from any decisions in the case of United States v. Trump.”
Meanwhile, ProPublica’s latest revelations amplify the existing ethical concerns surrounding Thomas. The report detailed a 2000 conversation between Thomas and Republican congressman Cliff Stearns, where Thomas expressed worries about the financial well-being of justices. In the discussion, Thomas suggested that one or more judges might contemplate resigning without a salary increase.
Further, the investigation disclosed Thomas’s lobbying efforts to eliminate a law prohibiting Supreme Court justices from receiving speaking fees.
Thomas’ 2000 comments to Stearns, a vocal conservative who’d been in Congress for 11 years and occasionally socialized with the justice, set off a flurry of activity across the judiciary and Capitol Hill. “His importance as a conservative was paramount,” Stearns said in a recent interview, according to ProPublica. “We wanted to make sure he felt comfortable in his job, and he was being paid properly.”
Worried, Stearns wrote a letter to Thomas after their flight, promising “to look into a bill to raise the salaries of members of the Supreme Court.” “As we agreed, it is worth a lot to Americans to have the constitution properly interpreted,” Stearns wrote. “We must have the proper incentives here, too.”
According to ProPublica, “Stearns’ office quickly enlisted the assistance of a lobbying firm working on the issue, and he delivered a speech on the House floor about how inflation is eroding judges’ salaries.” Thomas’ warning about resignations was relayed at a meeting of the heads of several judges’ associations. L. Ralph Mecham, then the judiciary’s top administrative official, fired off the memo describing Thomas’ complaints to Justice Rehnquist, his boss.
“I understand that Justice Thomas clearly told him that, in his view, departures would occur within the next year or so,” Mecham wrote of Thomas’ conversation with Stearns. Mecham worried that “from a tactical point of view,” congressional Democrats might oppose a raise if they sensed “the apparent purpose is to keep Justices [Antonin] Scalia and Thomas on the Court.” (Scalia had nine children and was also one of the less wealthy justices. Scalia, Mecham and Rehnquist have since died.)
During his second decade on the court, ProPublica noted that Thomas’ financial situation appears to have markedly improved. In 2003, he received the first payment of a $1.5 million advance for his memoir, a record-breaking sum for justices at the time. Ginni Thomas, who had been a congressional staffer, was by then working at the Heritage Foundation and was paid a salary in the low six figures.
Thomas also received dozens of expensive gifts throughout the 2000s, sometimes coming from people he’d met only shortly before. Thomas met Earl Dixon, the owner of a Florida pest control company, while getting his RV serviced outside Tampa in 2001, according to his biography, “Supreme Discomfort.” The next year, Dixon gave Thomas $5,000 to put toward his grandnephew’s tuition. Thomas reported the payment in his annual disclosure filing.
Larger gifts went undisclosed. Crow paid for two years of private high school, which tuition rates indicate would’ve cost roughly $100,000. In 2008, another wealthy friend forgave “a substantial amount, or even all” of the principal on the loan Thomas had used to buy the quarter-million-dollar RV, according to a recent Senate inquiry prompted by The New York Times’ reporting. Much of the Thomases’ leisure time was also paid for by a small group of billionaire businessmen, who brought the justice and his family on free vacations around the world. (Thomas has said he did not need to disclose the gifts of travel and his lawyer has disputed the Senate findings about the RV.)
By 2019, the justices’ pay hadn’t changed beyond keeping up with inflation. But Thomas’ views had apparently transformed two decades before. That June, during a public appearance, Thomas was asked about salaries at the court. “Oh goodness, I think it’s plenty,” Thomas responded. “My wife and I are doing fine. We don’t live extravagantly, but we are fine.”
“A few weeks later,” ProPublica concluded, “Thomas boarded Crow’s private jet to head to Indonesia. He and his wife were off on vacation on an island cruise on Crow’s 162-foot yacht.