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8 Reasons Justice Clarence Thomas Must Step Down

Plagued by ethical breaches and links to groups calling for armed insurrection against the U.S. government, Clarence Thomas must resign his seat on the Supreme Court.
 
 
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Time was when, at any right-wing gathering, chances were you'd hear the justices of the Supreme Court derided as black-robed usurpers of democracy. Today, not so much. Ever since the seating of the Roberts court, the right has been pretty happy with high court's decisions, especially the outcome of Citizens United v. FEC, the case through which the court, in a decision handed down last year, opened the floodgates of corporate money into the electoral system.

No single justice has been more stalwart for the causes of the right -- indeed, even the far right -- than Justice Clarence Thomas, who, notes ThinkProgress, may just be the most ethically challenged justice since Abe Fortas was forced to step down from the court in 1969 for accepting tens of thousands of dollars from wealthy benefactors.

While Thomas does not appear to have accepted direct donations (though he has accepted gifts, and possibly luxury travel aboard private jets and a yacht), it is clear that the conduct of his relationships with the wealthy and powerful -- and one magnate, Harlan Crow, in particular -- present some pretty obvious conflicts of interest, especially in regard to the court's decision in Citizens United, in which Thomas sided with the majority in declaring corporate campaign funding to be constitutionally protected. Thomas could have recused himself from the case, but he did not.

A New York Times exposé published on June 19 detailed the role of Clarence Thomas' friend, real estate magnate Harlan Crow, in bankrolling a pet project of the justice's, the Pin Point Museum and Cannery outside Savannah, Georgia. Crow also funded a Savannah library dedicated to Thomas, and Thomas was given a bust of Lincoln valued at $15,000 by the American Enterprise Institute, to which Crow is a donor, and which files briefs in Supreme Court cases. But other aspects of Thomas' relationship with Crow are far more troubling, especially Crow's involvement in providing the seed money for the Tea Party group founded by Thomas' wife, Ginni.

Now, it appears that Ginni Thomas may have derived a direct benefit from the Citizens United decision. And that is not the only ethically troubling incident in the annals of the Thomases' professional lives, which we detail below. But if there's any one big lesson to be learned from the saga of Clarence Thomas and the sullying of the high court, it's that Supreme Court justices are not bound by the code of ethics that applies to other members of the federal bench; it seems they are not legally bound by any code of ethics at all. In the wake of the Thomas problems, that fact has led more than 100 law professors to sign a letter calling on Congress to make the ethics code for federal judges apply to those who grace the bench of the highest court in the land.

Because of this legal loophole, Thomas cannot be forced off the bench. But, for the sake of the republic he claims to love, he could step down -- and should. (A Credo Action petition calling for just that is here. UPDATE: And Rep. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., called today for an investigation of Thomas, as reported by ThinkProgress' Ian Millhiser.) At AlterNet, we've followed the antics of Thomas and his wife, Ginni, closely since the launching of her Tea Party-aligned advocacy group made news last year. Here we detail the reasons that Thomas must go -- both for reasons of conflict, and for the appearance of Thomas' alignment with groups that have called for armed insurrection against the U.S. government.

1. Conflict of interest - Citizens United and Liberty Central: In November 2009, just two months before the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United was handed down -- but just after the case was argued before the court -- Ginni Thomas incorporated her Tea Party advocacy group, Liberty Central, as a tax-exempt 501(c)(4). As an issue-advocacy organization that sponsors advertising and endorses candidates, Liberty Central stood to gain directly from the outcome of Citizens United. Assuming that Ginni Thomas drew a salary and/or expenses from the group, the onus on Clarence Thomas was to recuse himself from participating in the Citizens United case, which he did not.

2. Conflict of interest - Harlan Crow's bankrolling of Liberty Central:
When AlterNet first reported on the launching of Liberty Central with Ginni Thomas at the helm, we noted that the group was formed with an initial donation of $500,000 by a then-unnamed donor.  Politico has since revealed that donor to be Harlan Crow, a Dallas real estate magnate who is a major donor to political causes, and a good friend of Clarence Thomas -- such a good friend that he bestowed upon the justice a Bible that once belonged to Frederick Douglass, a gift valued at $19,000.