ProPublica’s latest bombshell investigation reveals the missing link in the chain of ethics violations by Justice Clarence Thomas: evidence of quid pro quo corruption. His actions undermine our democracy and trust in the Court. When our President Taifa Smith Butler joined partners in calling for his resignation, she made it clear that Thomas is only one part of the problem.
Months of headlines revealed over 20 years of Thomas accepting and failing to disclose luxury travel and lavish gifts from rightwing billionaires with business before the Court.
Last month, the Supreme Court released a code of conduct allegedly to clear up “misunderstandings” about ethical issues on the nation’s highest court. But as Dēmos Policy Analyst Ashley Tjhung wrote, the code of conduct was “a PR stunt in the guise of genuine accountability.” Months of headlines revealed over 20 years of Thomas accepting and failing to disclose luxury travel and lavish gifts from rightwing billionaires with business before the Court. And he was not alone. Justice Samuel Alito’s actions also raised eyebrows, without a shred of remorse all while publicly criticizing SCOTUS ethics reform efforts.
According to the ProPublica reporting, after complaining about his salary and threatening to quit in 2000, Thomas told a prominent Republican member of Congress that if they didn’t raise justices’ pay and loosen bans on speaking engagements, “one or more justices would leave soon.” From there, the article details how far-right powerbrokers, including lawmakers, advocates, and donors, mobilized to keep Thomas on the Court. Those actions, as our president previously explained, “cannot be divorced from the rulings he and other members of the Court's extremist supermajority made to roll back our voting rights, undermine racial justice, threaten the separation of powers, and deplete our public goods.”
Thomas has not yet responded, but his refusal to recuse himself from cases in which he has multiple conflicts of interest further erodes the pretense of impartiality.
Just this week, eight members of the House called on Thomas to recuse himself from a case examining former president Trump’s presidential immunity, given his wife's involvement in plans to overturn the 2020 election. Thomas has not yet responded, but his refusal to recuse himself from cases in which he has multiple conflicts of interest further erodes the pretense of impartiality.
Thomas may be the most egregious example, but the roots of SCOTUS's rot run deeper than just one justice. Alito also failed to recuse himself in multiple cases where he’s had conflicts of interest, most recently in Moore v. United States. One of the lawyers involved in Moore interviewed Alito for the Wall Street Journal.
The Supreme Court’s ethics crisis is the result of decades of conservative court packing that sought to install far right idealogues at whatever the cost. While we work towards his resignation, we’re re-upping our three-step blueprint for a better Court.
1. Expand the SCOTUS Ethics investigation
The Senate Judiciary Committee already authorized subpoenas to Leonard Leo and Harlan Crow. It’s time to enforce them. We also join our partners in calling on Chair Durbin and the full Senate Judiciary Committee to immediately hold hearings to investigate the full extent of Thomas’s relationships and gifts, as well as the Judicial Conference’s and Chief Justice Roberts’s complicity in covering up decades of judicial corruption and lawbreaking.
2. Pass a binding, enforceable Supreme Court ethics bill
Congress must pass a bill with clear rules regarding recusals, gifts, and conflicts of interest. The legislation must also outline specific consequences if justices break the code and the body charged with investigating misconduct. Several ethics bills are already being considered, including the Supreme Court Ethics, Recusal, and Transparency Act (SCERT), which was taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year.
3. Expand the Court
Again, there’s already a bill for that. Congress must rebalance the court by passing the Judiciary Act and adding four seats. and adding four seats. Court expansion is the simplest and most effective way to undo decades of conservative court-packing and the far-right takeover of the courts. The Judiciary Act, sponsored by Hank Johnson in the House and Senator Ed Markey in the Senate, already has 65 cosponsors.
As we said in November, Thomas’ time in the headlines may come and go, but it’s never too late for court reform.