In May 2001, a Supreme Court justice gave a speech to the bar association in his hometown of Savannah, Ga., in which he made a curious comment about his job, one of the most powerful positions in the United States government. “The job is not worth doing for what they pay,” Clarence Thomas said. “The job is not worth doing for the grief. But it is worth doing for the principle.” The comment on “pay” might seem crass in referring to a lifetime appointment that carries excellent benefits. In 2001, Thomas raked in $178,300 per year. In 2022, his salary was a hefty $274,200. Few Americans would sneeze at such an income—although it is true that Thomas could almost certainly make more money as a lawyer in the private sector.
But as it turned out, Thomas and his wife, Ginni, had already discovered a way to indulge his desire to be a Supreme Court justice “for the principle”—even if the salary was beneath him. In 1996, Thomas met the billionaire Harlan Crow, who showered the couple with pelf and emoluments in the form of annual luxury vacations and $500,000 for a political nonprofit founded by Ginni (who drew a salary of $120,000). Crow also purchased the home of Thomas’s mother, paid to fix it and other houses in the neighborhood, and continues to this day to allow her to live in it rent-free.
It’s likely that Thomas himself sees nothing wrong with this arrangement, since he and Crow share the same principles. Thomas was getting benefits for work he would have done in any case (even as he grumbled about his salary). Of course, not everyone would take such a benign view of Thomas’s relationship with Crow, which perhaps explains why the justice didn’t disclose many of the benefits he was receiving.
To those who don’t share Thomas’s belief in the inherent virtue and innocence of great wealth, his relationship with Crow is a major conflict of interest and inherently corrupt—particularly since the billionaire has had business before the court and personally benefited from decisions Thomas has made.
The Thomas scandal continues to deepen. On Thursday, ProPublica, the nonprofit journalism outlet that broke the story about the Thomases’ vacations with Crow, posted another blockbuster. Crow had covertly paid private school tuition for Thomas’s grandnephew, whom Clarence and Virginia had taken in and raised since 2001.
Also on Thursday, The Washington Post reported: “Conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo arranged for the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to be paid tens of thousands of dollars for consulting work just over a decade ago, specifying that her name be left off billing paperwork.” In a note to Donald Trump crony Kellyanne Conway, who was arranging the deal, Leo cautioned, “No mention of Ginni, of course.” This suggests at the very least a foreknowledge of delinquency.
Ideally, Congress would use its investigatory power to look into the myriad scandals entangling Clarence and Ginni Thomas, as well as conflict-of-interest problems shadowing other judges such as Neil Gorsuch (who in 2017 sold property he co-owned to the head of a powerful law firm that frequently argues before the court). Instead, it’s highly unlikely that any congressional action will ever be taken, because the justices have powerful enablers.
The most important enabler is the Republican Party, which has circled the wagons to protect the justices. But this mess is a truly bipartisan affair, since it also includes disaffected Republicans like former representative Liz Cheney as well as Democratic Senators Dick Durbin and Dianne Feinstein.
Cheney was much celebrated as a Never Trump hero for defying her party and holding the former president to account for the January 6, 2021, attempted coup. What has been less often noted is that in her work for the January 6 committee Cheney assiduously promoted a narrative narrowly focused on Trump and avoided holding to account other Republicans who actively supported the attempt to overturn the 2000 election, notably Ginni Thomas. As The Washington Post reported last June, “Cheney did not want the committee to investigate Virginia ‘Ginni’ Thomas” because she “did not think it was fair to indirectly target the justice without evidence that he was involved.” Cheney in effect acted as a bodyguard protecting the couple from congressional scrutiny.
In theory, the Senate judiciary committee has the power to subpoena Clarence Thomas. This isn’t happening for two reasons. One is that committee member Dianne Feinstein is having health problems that prevent her from being in Washington. This deprives the Democrats of a crucial vote. The other reason is that Dick Durbin, the committee chair, has shown no interest in either pushing Feinstein to retire or in directly confronting the Supreme Court. His preferred strategy is to make simpering requests begging Chief Justice John Roberts to fix this mess.
On Thursday, Feinstein (or one of her staff) posted a Twitter thread responding to critics who say she is hampering the Democratic Party’s ability to confirm judges. In the first tweet, Feinstein wrote, “The Senate continues to swiftly confirm highly qualified individuals to the federal judiciary, including seven more judicial nominees who were confirmed this week. There has been no slowdown.” Two tweets later, the senator (or one of her staff) contradicted this statement by writing, “While the Senate Judiciary Committee has advanced eight strong nominees during my absence, I’m disappointed that Republicans are blocking a few in committee. I’m confident that when I return, we will be able to move the remaining qualified nominees to the Senate floor for a vote.” There is no indication of when Feinstein will return to Washington nor of how she will proceed on the scandals involving Clarence and Ginni Thomas.
Durbin and Feinstein clearly lack both the desire and the ability to lead a fight against court corruption. They stand in contrast to a small contingent of representatives and senators calling for Thomas to either resign or be impeached. In the House, the roll call of honor consists of Alma Adams, Don Beyer, Cori Bush, Chuy Garcia, Hank Johnson, Ro Khanna, Summer Lee, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Bill Pascrell Jr., and Nydia Velázquez. In the Senate, they are joined by Richard Blumenthal and Ed Markey. This is not, you might notice, a large group. Ideally, it should include all elected Democrats.
The Supreme Court scandal is an ongoing constitutional crisis, implicating the bipartisan congressional consensus that refuses to demand accountability from two Supreme Court justices with clear conflict-of-interest problems. There’s been much talk about the erosion of the legitimacy of the courts. In truth, the legitimacy of the entire system is at stake.