The New York Times published a major report Saturday delving into the ethical questions posed by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his relationship with real estate magnate Harlan Crowe. These recent insinuations on Thomas' ethics are only the latest in a long list that have been leveled at him. It's not unusual for judges to have conflicts of interest, but, as Talking Points Memo put it, "when it comes to ethical complications on the nation's highest court, Clarence Thomas takes the cake." It's worth it to review recent events.
Citizens United and the Koch Brothers. In January of 2008, Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia attended a political retreat run by the Koch brothers. Their subsequent ruling in the Citizens United campaign finance case reportedly benefited the Koch brothers' political activities. In early 2011, the advocacy group Common Cause asked the Justice Department to open an investigation into the propriety of the justices' participation in the case, according to the Times.
Liberty Central and Mrs. Thomas. In January of 2010, Thomas' wife, Virginia Thomas, founded a Tea Party-affiliated group called Liberty Central, the Los Angeles Times reports. The group opposes various progressive causes, including President Obama's health care overhaul, which is an issue that many believe is certain to come before her husband's court. Moreover, as part of her position, she would accept donations from various sources -- including corporations -- as allowed under campaign finance rules loosened by the Supreme Court. Virginia Thomas has since stepped down as head of the organization to take more of a back seat role.
The Missing Years of Financial Disclosure. In January of 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that Common Cause found that Virginia Thomas earned over $680,000 from conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation over five years, but the justice did not include it on financial disclosure forms, consistently checking no spousal income. Once the news came out, Thomas amended 13 years’ worth of disclosure reports to include details of his wife's income, Politico reports. He wrote it was a “misunderstanding of the filing instructions.” Common Cause remained unconvinced.
Harlan Crowe and the Pinpoint Museum. In the most recent case, the Times reports that Harlan Crowe, a close friend of Thomas who once gave his wife $500,000 for Liberty Central, is now financing a multimillion-dollar restoration of an old Georgia cannery where Thomas' mother once worked, at the Thomas' behest. The problem here is that the ethics code that binds federal judges says judges “should not personally participate” in raising money for charitable endeavors, out of concern that donors might feel pressured to give or entitled to receive favorable treatment from the judge. In addition, judges are not even supposed to know who donates to projects honoring them. Supreme Court justices are not subject to the federal code of ethics, but other justices have said they adhere to it.