If you thought you could no longer be shocked by the lavish gifts conservative billionaires have reportedly bestowed on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Thursday’s remarkable investigative report from ProPublica might surprise you. It reveals even more of the depth of Thomas’ corruption.
The report exposes Thomas’ pattern of secretly accepting private flights, yacht trips and other luxuries from a cadre of super-wealthy conservative donors over three decades in violation of legal and ethical standards. None of these donors knew Thomas before he joined the court.
These undisclosed gifts represent intolerable corruption within the highest court in the land.
ProPublica reported that these wealthy benefactors have treated the justice to at least 38 vacations, including a previously unknown yacht trip around the Bahamas, 26 flights on private jets, helicopter rides, box seats at sporting events and stays at luxury resorts.
Thomas’ misuse of his lofty position to enrich himself and live a life of luxury is just the kind of thing that has eroded the public’s confidence in a crucial institution. The Supreme Court’s perceived legitimacy has dropped to an all-time low.
Thomas appears to have violated the law by failing to disclose these gifts, according to ethics experts. They also raise the possibility of conflicts of interest and improper influence. As the ProPublica writers point out, Thomas’ billionaire donors “work in industries significantly impacted by the court’s decisions.”
More fundamentally, corruption can spring from an official’s conscious or unconscious sense of debt to those who treat him favorably and a tendency to share their worldview. The recipient of such extravagant gifts can hardly help but feel pressure to conform his beliefs to the expectations of the people footing the bill for his luxury flights, yachts and lodging. It’s not unreasonable to question whether Thomas has been guided by the good of our country or is unable to abandon the ideological preferences of his wealthy allies — particularly at the risk of losing a lifestyle to which he and his wife have become accustomed.
And yet even in light of these shameful ethical lapses, we need the Supreme Court, and we need it to be effective and respected. It has been a last line of defense for individual rights, with a history of checking elected officials who would enhance their own power by diminishing ours.
Making the Supreme Court accountable to ethical rules is the road to restoring its credibility. The Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal and Transparency (SCERT) Act, which focuses on standards for recusal from cases by the justices, is a critical and constitutionally appropriate step toward that goal.
Another would be an investigation of Thomas’ apparent ethical violations by the Department of Justice or Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., as one of us has previously urged.
Like other judges and indeed most Americans in any profession, the justices must be subject to an enforceable code of conduct. The Supreme Court clearly needs a reminder that although judges interpret the law, they are not above it. Americans can and should remind them of that in a variety of ways.
Citizens can call or write to their congressional representatives and urge them to act on legislation to hold the court accountable. Lawyers can speak out through groups such as the American Bar Assn., which this week announced a Task Force on Democracy led by esteemed former federal appellate Judge J. Michael Luttig.
Every one of us can make it clear that this type of corruption of the court is unacceptable. Justice Thomas, sadly, will leave a legacy of failure to abide by ethical and legal standards. It’s a legacy Americans must resoundingly reject.
Noah Bookbinder is the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former federal prosecutor. Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor who is of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.