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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Martin Pengelly in New York

US ethics watchdog calls on Clarence Thomas to resign over undisclosed gifts

Clarence Thomas
It was recently revealed that Harlan Crow paid for the private schooling of Clarence Thomas’s great-nephew. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

The conservative supreme court justice Clarence Thomas must resign, an ethics watchdog said on Tuesday, citing revelations about Thomas’s failure to declare lavish gifts and financial support from a Republican mega-donor, Harlan Crow.

In an open letter to Thomas, Noah Bookbinder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or Crew, cited a “grave crisis of institutional legitimacy currently facing the supreme court”.

“For the sake of the court and for the sake of our democracy which depends on a judiciary that the public accepts as legitimate and free from corruption, we urge you to resign.”

He added: “Your conduct has likely violated civil and criminal laws and has created the impression that access to and influence over supreme court justices is for sale.”

Thomas has said he did not declare gifts from Crow including luxury travel and resort stays because he was advised not to do so, but will do so in future.

He has not commented on reports that Crow bought from him property in which his mother still lives rent-free; that Crow paid for the private schooling for Thomas’s great-nephew, who the justice said he was raising like a son; and that the conservative activist Leonard Leo secretively arranged payment of tens of thousand dollars to Ginni Thomas, the justice’s rightwing activist wife.

Leo and Crow deny wrongdoing.

In the case of the school fees, Thomas did declare a gift from another donor for the same purpose. Critics say this shows he knew he should have declared gifts from Crow.

Supreme court justices are notionally subject to ethics rules for federal justices but in practice govern themselves.

Democrats have called for Thomas to be impeached and removed. That is a nonstarter, as Republicans hold the House, where impeachment would begin, and will protect the 6-3 conservative majority which has handed down major rulings including the removal of abortion rights. Democrats have also called for ethics reform.

Senate Democrats sought to call the chief justice, John Roberts, to testify. Roberts refused. Democrats cannot use a subpoena to compel testimony – from Roberts, Thomas or any other justice – because without the ill and absent Dianne Feinstein of California they do not have the required majority on the committee.

On Tuesday, Crow rebuffed a request from the Senate finance committee, citing tax concerns, for a list of gifts given to Thomas
On Tuesday, Crow rebuffed a request from the Senate finance committee, citing tax concerns, for a list of gifts given to Thomas. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Last week the judiciary chair, Dick Durbin, urged Roberts to confront the Thomas issue, saying the chief justice “has the power in his hands to change this”, adding that the “tangled web” around Thomas “just gets worse and worse by the day”.

On Tuesday, Crow rebuffed a request from the Senate finance committee, citing tax concerns, for a list of gifts given to Thomas. An attorney for Crow, Michael Bopp, called the request “a component of a broader campaign against Justice Thomas and, now, Mr Crow, rather than an investigation that furthers a valid legislative purpose”.

The committee chair, Ron Wyden, indicated Crow could now face a subpoena.

“The bottom line is that nobody can expect to get away with waving off finance committee oversight, no matter how wealthy or well-connected they may be,” Wyden said, promising to decide “how best to compel answers to the questions I put forward last month, including by using any of the tools at our disposal”.

Democrats on the judiciary committee also sent Crow a letter, asking for details of gifts to Thomas.

In his letter to the justice, Bookbinder said: “It has become clear that over the last several decades you have engaged in a longstanding pattern of conduct to accept and conceal gifts and other benefits received from … a billionaire political activist, and have disregarded your ethical duty to recuse yourself from cases in which you have a personal or financial conflict of interest.”

Crow insists he is simply good friends with Clarence and Ginni Thomas, with whom he refrains from discussing politics or business before the court. But outlets including the Guardian have shown that groups linked to Crow – a collector of historical memorabilia including paintings by Hitler – have had business before the court during his friendship with Thomas.

Bookbinder said reports about Thomas were “contributing to a catastrophic decline in public confidence that threatens to undermine the entire federal judiciary”. Public polling shows confidence in the court at historic lows.

Bookbinder told Thomas: “We know of no other modern justice who has engaged in such extreme misconduct.”

In 1969, Justice Abe Fortas resigned from the court, in part for accepting payment for outside activity. Fortas was paid $15,000 to teach summer school and took $20,000 from a foundation run by a convicted fraudster.

Bookbinder continued: “Indeed, [Thomas’s] receipt of consistent, lavish gifts and favors from a billionaire with an interest in the direction of the court is so far outside the experience of most of the American people, and so far beyond what most would consider acceptable, that it cannot help but further diminish the court’s credibility.”

He also charged Thomas with failing to recuse himself from cases involving his wife’s “personal or financial interests”, notably after the 2020 election, in a case regarding whether to release documents related to Donald Trump’s attempt to stay in power.

Thomas was the sole justice to say the documents should not be released. When they were, they showed Ginni Thomas’s involvement in Trump’s election subversion.

Bookbinder said: “It is increasingly difficult for people to trust that you are making decisions only based on the law and a commitment to justice.

“… The judiciary is built entirely upon a foundation of public trust. If that falls away, the institution will fail. While we appreciate your many years of public service, your conduct has left you with only one way to continue faithfully serving our democracy.

“For the sake of our judiciary and the sake of people’s faith in its legitimacy, you must resign.”

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