Pluralistic: Clarence Thomas and the generosity of a far-right dark-money billionaire (06 Apr 2023)

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An altered image of Clarence Thomas, standing in gilded judicial robes on the steps of the Supreme Court. Looming over the court is a line-drawing of a business-man with a dollar-sign-emblazoned money-bag for a head.

Clarence Thomas and the generosity of a far-right dark-money billionaire (permalink)

Clarence Thomas has set some important precedents in his career as a Supreme Court justice – for example, the elevation of the unrepentant rapist Brett Kavanaugh to the bench could never have occurred but for the trail blazed by Thomas as a sexually harassing, pubic-hair distributing creep boss:

Today, Thomas continues to steer the court into new territory – for example, he's interested in banning same-sex marriage again:

And of course, he's set precedent by hearing cases related to the attempted overthrow of the US government, despite the role his wife played in the affair:

Thomas is not alone in furthering the right's mission to destroy the morale of constitutional law scholars by systematically delegitimizing the court and showing it to be a vehicle for partisan politics and dark money policy laundering, but he is certainly at the vanguard:

Today, Propublica published an expose on the vast fortune in secret gifts bestowed upon Thomas by the billionare GOP megadonor Harlan Crow, who is also one the most significant funders of political campaigns that put business before Thomas and the Supreme Court:

The story, reported by Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott and Alex Mierjeski is a masterwork of shoe-leather investigative journalism, drawing on aviation records, social media posts and other "open source" intelligence to expose the illegal, off-the-books "gifts" from a billionaire to an unaccountable Supreme Court justice with a lifetime appointment.

Here are a two of those gifts: a private jet/superyacht jaunt around Indonesia valued at $500,000; and a $500,000 gift to Ginni Thomas's Tea Party group (which pays Ginni Thomas $120,000/year).

On top of that are gifts that are literally priceless: decades' worth of summer vacations at Camp Topridge, Crow's private estate, with its waterfall, great hall, private chefs, 25 fireplaces, thee boathouses, clay tennis court, batting range, 1950s-style soda fountain and full-scale reproduction of Hagrid's hut.

Summer retreats to Topridge allow business leaders like Leonard Leo – the Federalist Society bankroller and mastermind who set Trump up to pack the Supreme Court – to coordinate in private with Thomas:

They also allow top execs from PWC, Verizon and other corporations who may have business before the court to establish a warm, collegial relationship with a judge whose decisions can make billions for their employers. In its reporting, Propublica points out that Thomas got to hang out on Crow's superyacht with Mark Paoletta, who was then general counsel for Trump's OMB, and who has opposed any tightening of ethics rules for Supreme Court judges: "there is nothing wrong with ethics or recusals at the Supreme Court."

Crow and Thomas also hobnob together at Crow's Texas ranch, and at the Bohemian Grove, the Bay Area's ultra-luxe retreat for rich creeps. Crow bought Thomas a private superyacht cruise through New Zealand, another through the Greek islands, and a river trip around Savannah, GA. He also traveled around the country on Crow's private jet – even a short private jet trip is valued around $70,000.

Crow also makes many donations on Thomas's behalf, from a $105,000 donation to Yale Law School for the "Justice Thomas Portrait Fund" to paying for a 7 foot tall, 1,800 lb bronze statue of the nun who taught Thomas in the eighth grade, which now stands in a New York Catholic cemetery.

This is without precedent. No Supreme Court justice in US history received comparable gifts during their tenure on the bench. Federal judges quoted in the story call it "incomprehensible," noting that US judges bend over backwards not to owe anyone any favors, going so far as to book restaurant reservations without using their titles.

Virginia Canter, a former US government ethics lawyer of bipartisan experience said Thomas "seems to have completely disregarded his higher ethical obligations," adding "it makes my heart sink."

The Supreme Court's own code of ethics prohibits justices from engaging in conduct that gives rise to the "appearance of impropriety," but the code is "consultative," and there are no penalties for violating it. But US judicial officers – including Thomas – are legally required to disclose things like private jet trips. Thomas did not. In general, justices must report any gift valued at more than $415, where a gift is "anything of value." This includes instances in which a gift is given by a corporation whose owner is the true giver.

Crow is a Red Scare-haunted plutocrat who says his greatest fear is "Marxism." He was a key donor to the anti-tax extremists at the Club For Growth, and has served on the board of the American Enterprise Institute – climate deniers who also claimed that smoking didn't cause cancer – for 25 years.

Crow is a proud dark-money source, too, whose $10m in acknowledged donations to Republican causes and candidates are only the tip of the iceberg, next to the dark money he has provided to groups he declines to name, telling the New York Times, "I don’t disclose what I’m not required to disclose."

Crow claims that the vast sums he's lavished on Thomas – who, again, presides over the test cases that Crow is helping to put before him – are just "hospitality." Crow called the private retreats with business leaders and top government officials "gatherings of friends," and added that he was "unaware of any of our friends ever lobbying or seeking to influence Justice Thomas" while at his private estates or on his superyacht or private plane.

For his part, Thomas publicly maintains that he hates luxury. In a Crow-financed documentary about Thomas's life, Thomas tells the camera, "I prefer the RV parks. I prefer the Walmart parking lots to the beaches and things like that. There’s something normal to me about it. I come from regular stock, and I prefer that — I prefer being around that."

Judges often have to make determinations about conflicts of interest, and lawyers have an entire practice devoted to preventing conflicts from arising. I doubt whether Thomas himself would consent to have a dispute of his own tried in front of a judge who had received millions in gifts from his opponent.

The Supreme Court's power comes from its legitimacy. The project of delegitimizing the court started with the right, and Democrats have been loath to participate in any activity that would worsen the court's reputation. As a result, the business lobby and authoritarian politicians have had free rein to turn the court into a weapon for attacking American workers, American women, and LGBTQ people.

It doesn't have to be this way. When the Supreme Court blocked all of FDR's New Deal policies – which were wildly popular – FDR responded by proposing age limits for Supreme Court judges. When the Supremes refused to contemplate this, FDR asked Congress for a law allowing him to appoint one new Supreme Court judge for every judge who should retire but wouldn't.

As the vote on this bill grew nearer, the Supremes reversed themselves, voting to uphold the policies they'd struck down in their previous session. They knew that their legitimacy was all they had, and when a brave president stood up to their bullying, they caved.

The Supreme Court has moved America further away from the ideals of pluralistic democracy than we can even fathom, and they're just getting started. They are taking a wrecking ball to the lives of anyone who isn't a wealthy conservative, and they're doing it while accepting a fortune in bribes from American oligarchs.

(Image: Mr. Kjetil Ree, CC BY-SA 3.0, modified)

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