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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Steven Greenhouse

Clarence Thomas should resign from the supreme court, for the good of the court

‘In 1969, senators, both Democratic and Republican, demanded that the liberal justice Abe Fortas resign over matters that seem trivial compared with Clarence Thomas’s misdeeds.’
‘In 1969, senators, both Democratic and Republican, demanded that the liberal justice Abe Fortas resign over matters that seem trivial compared with Clarence Thomas’s misdeeds.’ Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

After ProPublica and other news organizations exposed one damning revelation after another, it has become unarguably clear that Clarence Thomas is hugely corrupt, has brazenly and repeatedly violated disclosure laws and has shown utter contempt for the most elementary ethical standards. It’s deeply troubling that so few of our political leaders have called for the obvious moral response to this ever-widening scandal: Thomas should resign.

There’s been far too much shilly-shallying about all this. It’s not nearly enough to call on Thomas to belatedly comply with disclosure laws or to repay Harlan Crow, the billionaire rightwing activist who has showered $1m in favors on Thomas and his family. Thomas’s myriad violations are too serious, his contempt for ethics and conflict-of-interest rules too blatant, for us to accept half measures or slaps on the wrist. He has disgraced the court. It is time for him to go.

It is probably naive to hope that Thomas will resign without a huge push. That’s why far more public pressure is needed to get Thomas to do the right thing. Editorial writers, columnists, law school deans, political science professors, good government groups, bar associations and members of the clergy should all urge him to step down.

There’s someone else who should call for Thomas to resign, and that’s Chief Justice John Roberts. By acting as if Thomas has done nothing wrong, Roberts looks pathetic and weak. Roberts even seems to be cosseting and enabling unethical behavior by the justices. Indeed, he seems to think it’s perfectly fine for billionaire ideological activists to ply justices with favors. I suspect that Roberts is woefully out of touch with public sentiment. He evidently thinks that the average American is an amoral moron untroubled by a supreme court justice accepting huge favors from a billionaire who has poured millions of dollars into efforts to push American’s politics to the far right.

There’s another shocking aspect to the scandal: not only do many Republican lawmakers act as if Thomas has done nothing wrong, but they assert – absurdly – that anyone making a fuss about his behavior is doing so only because they dislike his judicial opinions. That’s slimy sophistry. Thomas’s defenders know he did wrong, but will not admit it. In these polarized times, they want to stand by their man. Too many Republicans eagerly excuse Thomas’s greedy, self-serving, illegal behavior, just as too many eagerly excuse Trump’s greedy, sexist, racist, dishonest and illegal behavior.

All this reminds me of the famous question – “Have you no sense of decency?” – that helped bring down an earlier corrupt, dishonest politician, Senator Joseph McCarthy. We should all ask Thomas the same question, considering that he thinks it’s totally fine to take big favors from a billionaire ideologue who donates heavily to many rightwing groups that file briefs before the supreme court. Indeed, I wonder whether many of our political leaders have lost their sense of decency because they seem happy to give a pass to Thomas’s behavior.

In 1969, senators, both Democratic and Republican, demanded that the liberal justice Abe Fortas resign over matters that seem trivial compared with Clarence Thomas’s misdeeds. Fortas was pilloried for receiving $20,000 in fees (worth $165,000 in today’s dollars) to consult for a foundation that focused on civil rights and religious freedom. Fortas’s big problem was that the businessman who created that foundation, Louis Wolfson, was later investigated and convicted of selling unregistered stock. (At the time, other justices, including Chief Justice Warren Burger, also received fees consulting for non-profits.)

Fortas had returned the $20,000 and quit the foundation in 1966, three years before the scandal became public, with the help of the Nixon administration. Fortas denied any wrongdoing, but that didn’t stop prominent Democratic senators like Walter Mondale and Joseph Tydings from joining the call for him to resign – even though Richard Nixon, a Republican, would name Fortas’s successor.

So I ask: have we as a nation lost our sense of decency? Why aren’t more people calling for Thomas to resign when his wrongdoing is far worse than what Fortas did? Consider the evidence:

  • From 2003 to 2007, Thomas repeatedly failed to disclose that his wife, Ginni, was paid $686,589 by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which often files amicus briefs to the court.

  • In 2008 and 2009, Thomas failed to disclose that Crow paid roughly $100,000 in private school tuition for a grand-nephew Thomas was raising.

  • In 2011 and 2012, Thomas failed to disclose at least $80,000 in payments to his wife that Leonard Leo – the leader of nationwide efforts to install conservative judges – had secretly arranged to be paid by an organization that filed amicus briefs to the supreme court.

  • In 2014, Thomas failed to disclose that one of Crow’s companies paid $133,363 for three Georgia properties owned by Thomas and his family.

  • For at least two decades, Thomas has taken free luxury travel and vacations from Crow on yachts and private jets (valued at more than $500,000) – and repeatedly failed to disclose those favors.

  • Even though Ginni Thomas repeatedly texted Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, to urge more aggressive efforts to overturn the 2020 election, Clarence Thomas failed to recuse himself from cases involving Trump and January 6. Indeed, Thomas was the only justice to back Trump in a case in which all the other justices rebuked Trump and backed releasing White House records about the January 6 attack.

An acquaintance in the Department of Labor once told me she could not allow me to buy her a $3 cup of coffee. In contrast, Thomas acts as if he is a demigod above the ethical rules that apply to other humans, including other federal employees.

Anyone so allergic to complying with basic ethical standards has no place working in government – and least of all serving on the supreme court, where we should expect the highest ethical standards. It is time for Thomas to go.

  • Steven Greenhouse, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is a longtime American labor and workplace journalist and writer, and the author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor

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