Yachts, $10 Million Checks, and Secret Hunting Trips: The Supreme Court Scandal Story

youhe Supreme Court of the United States has a credibility problem.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to explore whether the high court needs to adopt stricter ethics scandals, following a series of revelations that Judge Clarence Thomas accepted lavish travel and lodging from a Republican megadonor named Harlan Crow.

Senators from both parties have bills in the works that would impose new rules on the high court, which has long been self-policing and prides itself on a culture of confidentiality and independence from politics.

“The highest court in the land should not have the lowest standards,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said Tuesday.

In January, less than half of those who responded to a poll approved of the job the high court was doing.

The focus on Judge Thomas may be recent, but the court has a long history of ethics scandals. Here’s what you need to know.

Clarence Thomas and the ‘hospitality’ of a billionaire

The scandal that sparked this debate relates to Harlan Crow, a conservative billionaire from Texas and a leading donor to conservative causes.

The investigative outlet ProPublica found that Crow had flown Judge Thomas and his family around the world on a private plane and had arranged annual summer vacations at his Adirondacks resort, trips the lawyer did not disclose.

“As friends do, we have come together [Mr Crow and his wife] on various family trips over the more than quarter century that we have known them,” Justice Thomas said of the trips in a statement.

“Early in my tenure on the Court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and I was informed that this type of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who had no business before the Court, was not reportable.” , said. aggregate.

However, the ties went beyond the holidays. Crow also bought a group of properties from Judge Thomas in Georgia, and currently owns the house where the superior court judge’s mother lives.

Meanwhile, Judge Niel Gorsuch sold a $2 million property to the owner of a law firm with regular cases before the Supreme Court.

Additional scrutiny against Judge Thomas also yielded news that the conservative jurist underreported hundreds of thousands of dollars of income from a family real estate business.

Ginni Thomas and the big lie

In the midst of the 2020 election season, where the Supreme Court would eventually hear Donald Trump’s cases challenging the election results, Ginni Thomas, wife of Clarence Thomas, lobbied the White House to continue to falsely claim that Trump won the race.

“Help this great president stand his ground, Mark!” read a message from November of that year that he sent to Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows. “You are the leader, with him, defending the constitutional government of the United States on the precipice. Most know Biden and the left is pulling the biggest heist in our history.”

Those messages landed Ms. Thomas in front of the January 6 committee of Congress, where she denied having exerted undue influence on her husband’s work on the Supreme Court.

Clarence Thomas gift scandal: US Senate panel to examine Supreme Court ethics

It is not the first time that Thomas’s work as a conservative activist has surprised.

In 2011, Judge Thomas, under the scrutiny of watchdog groups, updated years of disclosure forms to include the fact that Ms. Thomas, a conservative activist, earned more than $686,000 in income from the trending Heritage Foundation. right-winger between 2003 and 2007, a discrepancy Mr Thomas attributed to “a misunderstanding of the filing instructions”.

Chief Justice John Roberts and his million dollar headhunter wife

Jane Roberts, wife of Chief Justice John Roberts, has also come under scrutiny for her business activities.

Between 2007 and 2014, she made more than $10 million working as a legal recruiter, connecting lawyers with top law firms, at least one of which argued before her husband, Well-informed person reports, citing information from a whistleblower complaint. Her windfall made her one of the highest-paid legal recruiters in the country at the time.

“When I found out that the wife of the chief justice was soliciting business from law firms, I knew immediately that I was wrong,” said the whistleblower, former colleague Kendal B Price. Well-informed person. “During my time there, I was discouraged from raising the issue. And I realized that even the law firms that were Jane’s clients had nowhere to go. The Chief Justice’s wife was asking them for hundreds of business worth of dollars. Thousands of dollars, and there was no one to complain to. Most of these companies were probably appearing or seeking to appear before the Supreme Court. It’s natural that they would do whatever they felt was necessary to be competitive.”

Ms Roberts’ firm at the time said in a statement to the outlet that it upheld “the highest standards: candidate confidentiality, client trust and professionalism.”

An unprecedented escape

In May 2022, the Supreme Court found itself in an unprecedented position: investigating a leak. Somehow, a copy of a draft opinion that would form the basis of the court’s eventual decision to set aside Roe vs. Wade and abolishing the constitutional right to abortion became public. It was a massive violation of judicial rules, where judges, who serve life terms, pride themselves on their collegiality and discretion.

Since then, officials have been investigating the source of the leak, including interviewing law clerks for higher courts.

sexual harassment

Other scandals endangering the court’s credibility have involved the alleged conduct of judges before they were appointed to the nation’s highest bench.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh was charged by three women with sexually assaulting them or others prior to his confirmation, and Judge Thomas was charged during his confirmation proceedings in 1991 with harassing Anita Hill while she worked for him at the Department of Education at USA and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Both men denied the accusations.

Impartial Lawyers or Partisan Appointees?

Aside from their personal conduct, Supreme Court justices have come under fire for their ties to legal advocacy organizations like the conservative Federalist Society, which has invested decades and millions of dollars building a pool of ideologically aligned recruits for power. federal court.

The court’s six current right-leaning justices have ties to the organization, which played an outsized role under the Trump administration by providing candidates for judicial nominations in districts across the country.

During a Federalist meeting, Justice Samuel Alito openly complained about the advancement of liberal values, an apparent affront to the high court’s supposed portrayal as a court above the political fray.

“You cannot say that marriage is a union between a man and a woman,” Judge Alito said. “Until very recently, that’s what the vast majority of Americans thought. Now it is considered intolerance.”

A judge who ‘would do anything if you took him hunting’

Clarence Thomas is not the only Supreme Court justice who has come under scrutiny for his lavish travels and hobnobbing with the conservative elite.

Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016 while in an $800-a-night hunting lodge in Texas, went on as many as 85 undisclosed hunting and fishing trips during his tenure, often in the company of conservative donors, politicians and people with businesses before him. of the Supreme Court, reports Slate.

His reputation for such excursions was so notorious that Texas lawyer and Republican donor Mark Lanier said he heard Justice Scalia “would do anything if you took him hunting.” Later, the lawyer flew Judge Scalia on a charter plane to a private boar hunting ranch after the lawyer gave a speech at Texas Tech.

A comfortable relationship with the press

For decades, radio listeners have been turning to legal reporting from Nina Totenberg, a longtime Supreme Court chronicler for NPR.

They were shocked to discover, after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, that Ms. Totenberg had a decades-long friendship with the liberal stalwart, a fact not acknowledged in NPR coverage but the subject of the judge’s memoir. reporter. dinners with rut.

The station’s public editor later concluded that “the closeness of that Totenberg-Ginsburg relationship was never fully revealed, and it raises the question of whether journalistic independence, also vital to NPR consumers, was as strong as listeners have the right to expect”.

Confirmation or confirmation bias?

Another area where critics see room for reform is the Supreme Court confirmation process.

Republicans declined to consider Barrack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, in 2016 after Scalia’s death, arguing that such an appointment would be inappropriate during an election year.

Four years later, when Judge Ginsburg died, Amy Coney Barrett was appointed a week before Election Day.

Conservatives also have their complaints about the process.

Reagan’s nominee Robert Bork was so famous—in television commercials, in speeches by senators—in his failed bid for nomination that being “Bork-ed” is now a Washington verb for the total destruction of one’s reputation. in public.

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