Ethical Standards at the US Supreme Court Continue to Erode

Justice Clarence Thomas is in the news again.  I don’t know if there has ever been a United States Supreme Court justice that has had so much media focus.  And, as is usually the case with Justice Thomas, it’s negative.

Harlan Crow is a Texas real estate billionaire.  He likes to travel to exotic destinations such as Indonesia and Bohemian Grove, an exclusive retreat in Northern California.  He also owns a 105-acre lakeside retreat in the Adirondack mountains.  Mr. Crow is also very active in conservative politics, making donations to all kinds of conservative causes, including conservative republican politicians and the Federalist Society.

Mr. Crow apparently does not like to travel to these places alone, so he takes Justice Thomas and his wife, Ginny, with him.  Indeed, this has been going on for years.  In addition to the trips (which the overwhelming majority of Americans could never afford), Mr. Crow likes to purchase gifts for Justice Thomas.  Some of these include a Bible previously owned by Frederick Douglas (estimated value – $19,000.00), and a bust of Abraham Lincoln (estimated value – $15,000.00).  He also donated $175,000.00 to name a wing after Justice Thomas in the library of the latter’s childhood home.  He also purchased real estate owned by Justice Thomas in Savannah, Georgia.  The Justice and his family received $133,000.00 for the property.  Mr. Crow has indicted that he wants to one day construct a museum on the site to tell the Justice’s story.

Justice Thomas has not been the only recipient of Mr. Crow’s largess.  Media sources have reported that he donated $500,000.00 to a Tea Party-related group that Ginny Thomas set up at some time several years ago.

It’s great to have friends, especially rich ones, who give you expensive presents, treat you to vacations in all kinds of sexy venues, and support your wife’s political causes.  But here’s the problem.  Justice Thomas, as a federal employee in a highly significant position that allows him to wield considerable power over the lives of every American citizen, is supposed to report these things on financial disclosure forms.  But he did not do that.  Justice Thomas admits to a 25-year relationship with Mr. Crow.  When challenged about the gifts and vacations he has received over the years, he replied that shortly after becoming a justice, he sought guidance from people at the Court and others in the federal judiciary concerning the gifts and travel, and was told that he did not have to report personal hospitality from close friends who had no business before the Court.  However, he never identified who he consulted with, leaving the clear impression that such inquiries were never really made.

Mr. Crow may not have a direct interest in a case before the Court but, as noted, he is a very wealthy conservative donor who certainly has the resources to indirectly support parties who do have pending matters.  The conflict of interest issue is obvious and, given the power of the Supreme Court, should concern every American citizen.

However, the Supreme Court, which is (at least supossed to be) substantially walled off from the rest of the Government, apparently has no formal ethics code for the justices, and no internal mechanism or authority to ensure that the Court’s members maintain the highest ethical standards at all times.  The Court has always insisted that it can, and should, police itself. But let’s remember that we are talking about nine of the most powerful officials in our system.  Should they really be allowed to police themselves, given the nature of their positions?  Most judges and attorneys in this country have ethics codes that they must comply with, but not so the Supreme Court.

Mr. Crow, like any American, is entitled to his political viewpoint and can legally donate to any conservative cause(s) he wishes to support; however, his conduct relative to Justice Thomas appears to be nothing less than an ongoing effort to purchase influence at the Court so as to at least indirectly advance his political positions.  And Justice Thomas seems more than willing to go along with it, apparently trying to convince observers that accusing him of unethical conduct because of his receipt of Mr. Crow’s largess is simply part of an ongoing smear campaign.

Justice Thomas, as well as his wife, have been raising ethical issues for years.  His conduct demonstrates clearly that the Court cannot police itself, and that formal ethics rules for the justices, as well as an ethics office at the Court, are sorely needed.

James S. Friedman, Esq., is a criminal defense attorney based in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  Mr. Friedman represents criminal defendants in the New Jersey Superior Court in all counties, all New Jersey municipal courts, and the United States district courts in New Jersey and New York City.  If you have a case in one of these courts, contact Mr. Friedman to learn about your options and build your defense.

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