Clarence Thomas proves it’s time for Supreme Court term limits
Yves here. With so much news with volume 11, the Clarence Thomas bribery scandal (there’s no way to embellish this even in the absence of an explicit quid pro quo) has strangely not generated the outrage it deserves. If Thomas can’t be charged, then term limits would be a sensible alternative…but if such egregious conduct won’t lead to removal, it’s doubtful that any further corrective action will be taken.
By Sonali Kolhatkar, an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her next book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is an Economy for All Writing Fellow at the Independent Media Institute and an editor for racial justice and civil liberties at Yes! Magazine. She serves as co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She is also on the board of directors of the Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization. Produced by , a project of the Independent Media Institute
A pair of new ProPublica investigative reports on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas are a testament not only to the importance of good journalism in a democracy, but also to Thomas’ lack of fitness on the court and the need for better barriers against moneyed influence. The first explosive story, “Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire,” highlighted how a wealthy man named Harlan Crow befriended Thomas after he became a Supreme Court justice and invited him (and often his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas ) to a luxurious vacation on an almost annual basis. Thomas did not disclose the trips as requested. Although he initially refused to speak to ProPublica about the initial story, he eventually made a statement saying he had been told he did not need to disclose the freebies.
ProPublica followed that up just a few days later with another story whose headline says it all: “Billionaire Harlan Crow bought property from Clarence Thomas. The judge did not disclose the deal.” The property in question “was not a notable acquisition for the real estate mogul, just an older one-story house and two vacant lots down the road.” Like the holidays, Thomas also did not publicly disclose the sale. His mother has lived in the house and continues to do so after the property was taken over by Crow. The billionaire has been busy giving it expensive renovations.
There is no doubt that Thomas violated the law by not disclosing his financial dealings with Crow. Every American should read ProPublica’s reports on how one of the nine justices on the Supreme Court, whose jurisdiction spans the entire nation, appears to be in the pocket of a billionaire. The relationship between Crow and Thomas is a cozy one and has paid off for moneyed elites: justice has routinely sided with moneyed interests and their influence on policymaking.
Prior to ProPublica’s April 2023 investigations, most reporting on the court’s first black judge had focused on his conservative white wife. Ginni Thomas has been an activist wife, openly reflecting the conservative political sensibilities her husband asserts in his court decisions. During Barack Obama’s presidency, she founded a “Tea Party” nonprofit organization called Liberty Central, a move the New York Times described as “the most partisan role a judge’s wife has ever played in the most top of the nation.”
She then went further, becoming a political lobbyist and leading a small, secretive organization called Liberty Consulting. A 2011 Politico report notes that she touted “her ‘experience and connections’ to help clients ‘with government affairs efforts.'” She made headlines last year for lobbiing former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows via text messages to try to overturn the 2020 election results in favor of Donald Trump. Most recently, the Washington Post published an investigation into anonymous donations totaling $600,000 made to another organization she runs called Crowdsourcers for Culture and Liberty. Donations helped fund the right-wing’s fierce culture wars.
When asked about the conflicts of interest presented by her activism for her husband’s work on the Supreme Court, Ginni Thomas dismissed them, telling the House Select Committee to Investigate the Attack on the United States Capitol on 6 January: “It is ridiculous for anyone who knows my husband to think that I could influence his jurisprudence… The man is independent and stubborn.” He also said in an interview with the conservative outlet Washington Free Beacon: “Like many married couples, we share many of the same ideals, principles and aspirations for America.” He added: “But we have our own separate careers and our own ideas and opinions as well. Clarence doesn’t talk about his work with me, and I don’t involve him in my work.”
Well, that’s a relief. The sanctity of the nation’s highest court and its freedom from partisan influence rests on the word of a person who promises that there is no undue influence between a wife and her husband. This is a person who still believes the 2020 election was stolen, a view that makes her even worse than Trump sycophant and former US Attorney General William Barr, who said he would vote for Trump in 2024 but was at least able to admit that his claims of voter fraud were false.
In 2021, when Chief Justice John Roberts delivered his year-end report on the federal judiciary, he stressed the importance of “impartial decision-making” and that “the power of the judiciary to administer its internal affairs insulates courts from inappropriate political decisions.” influence and is crucial to preserving public confidence in their work as a separate and co-equal branch of government. Apparently, Roberts was ignorant of the Thomases’ actions or was confident that Ginni’s promise of isolation from marital influence was good enough.
Although Clarence Thomas and his wife, Ginni, offer arguably the most explicit examples of corrupting influence on the Supreme Court, they are not alone. In December 2022, the New York Times revealed that an innocently named charity called the Supreme Court Historical Society has “become a vehicle for those seeking access to nine of the loneliest and most powerful people in the nation.” The organization has raised millions of dollars from secret donors. Most of the money the New York Times could identify came from “corporations, special interest groups, or lawyers and firms that argued cases in court.” Justices attend the Supreme Court Historical Society’s annual dinner, offering a tantalizing opportunity for individual attendees to sway them, as the leader of an anti-abortion group apparently took advantage of.
Despite the liberal minority that includes Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, this is a court that loves wealth and has protected it for more than half a century. No wonder there is growing public disapproval of a body that is so influential that its long-awaited decisions affect nearly every aspect of our lives, from abortion to guns to unions to LGBTQ rights and more.
Supreme Court judges have life terms, ostensibly a mechanism to protect them from “partisan pressure.” But that only works if the regulations that prevent corrupting influence are foolproof, and if there are real consequences for violating those regulations. In the aftermath of the Nixon Watergate scandal, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act (EIGA) to ensure that officials such as Supreme Court justices were independent of moneyed interests.
But even though Judge Thomas appears to have violated the EIGA, there is no direct mechanism to hold him accountable unless Congress initiates impeachment proceedings against him, a move that is almost unprecedented except for the impeachment of the House of Representatives more than 200 years ago to a judge. who was eventually acquitted by the Senate.
No other democratically governed nation on the planet grants its highest court judges a lifetime term. Now, some legal experts have suggested term limits, and numerous Democratic senators have introduced the TERM Act, which would introduce 18-year terms for Supreme Court justices. This would mean that a new judge would replace one who was removed every two years, and presidents would have two opportunities during each four-year term to appoint new judges.
By passing the TERM Act, the US would join the rest of the world’s democratic nations in championing an impartial judiciary, the Thomases could realize their dystopian vision of the nation free from corruption charges, and billionaire Harlan Crow you might even save yourself some money. .