Supreme Court Justices are not legally required to follow the federal code of conduct for the judiciary, but they are supposed to do so.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is embroiled in an ethics scandal because he has not followed those guidelines, nor precedent in his jurisprudence. Watch:
For your edification, the NYT piece on Crow-Thomas.
Related Posts on Political Ruminations: John Dean: Rehnquist and Mitchell Forced Justice Fortis to Resign
VIDEO TRANSCRIPT (courtesy of The Maddow Show):
MADDOW: When you are a Supreme Court justice, people tend to name things after you, even build places just to honor you.
This statue, for instance, honors Justice William Brennan in his native Newark, New Jersey. Consider also the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston. The Sandra Day O‘Connor College of Law in Arizona. Brandeis University in Massachusetts named for Louis Brandeis.
And the newly renamed Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses and Community Center, where she grew up in New York City. There‘s John Paul Stevens High School in San Antonio. Earl Warren High School also in San Antonio—and so on and so on.
When we honor a Supreme Court justice, it‘s because we consider them just, fair, deliberate, above reproach. We like to believe that judges embody not just achievement. They embody those noble qualities, right?
There also, it should be noted, are guidelines that broadly govern judges‘ impartiality that require it and that protect it. Judges other than Supreme Court justice are legally bound by a code of conduct for federal judges.
Supreme Court justices themselves are not bound by it, but they are supposed to follow it anyway. They say that they do. They are supposed to be above reproach. They are to self-police. They are, after all, the Supreme Court.
For example, the code of conduct for federal judges says judges are not supposed to know who donates money for something like a building or a statue that honors a judge, so there can be no question of whether that building or statue was a bribe to the judge‘s vanity. It seems to make sense.
Same goes for charity causes. Even if Justice X loves, say, spaying and neutering as a charity concept, he or she should not be directly involved in soliciting funds for charities that do spaying and neutering. Again, so it won‘t look like a bribe, even if it is a bribe that benefits a good cause.
Given those rules, how do you explain this? “The New York Times” this weekend reporting on the connection between a Dallas real estate baron and a Supreme Court justice by the name of Clarence Thomas. The real estate baron is named Harlan Crow. He is both a major contributor to conservative causes and also, “The New York Times” reports, a major contributor to the effort to turn this old seafood cannery outside Savannah, Georgia, where Justice Thomas‘ mother once picked crabs, he wants to turn this into a museum, into the Pinpoint Heritage Museum.
The owner of the property telling “The New York Times” that he had
bumped into Justice Thomas a few years back and told him he hoped this
cannery property could be preserved. From the paper, quote, “And Clarence
said, ‘Well, I‘ve got a friend I‘m going to put you in touch with.‘”
By last November, the local paper was announcing construction on the Pinpoint Heritage Museum, with a quote from Justice Thomas about the important local and national resource. An executive for the Dallas real estate magnate tells the local paper only that the anonymous donor is, quote, “a patriot with a love of history.”
So very secretive this Dallas donor patriot with the love of history of this particular spot on the Georgia coast—this particular spot that just happens to be where Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is from? Very secretive.
Let‘s see Harlan Crow‘s picture again. Mr. Crow, according to “The New York Times,” has also given Justice Thomas a Bible that once belonged to Frederick Douglass. That Bible was valued at $19,000. When Justice Thomas received it, Mr. Crow tried to give $175,000 to a Savannah library in Clarence Thomas‘ honor. He tried to give that anonymously but he got outed by critics of the justice.
Harlan Crow also appears to have financed the Tea Party group Liberty Central, run by Justice Thomas‘ wife. That‘s her on the left there.
Mr. Crow reportedly put up half a million bucks for this organization, Liberty Central.
Justice Thomas has frequently been in the news for gifts he has reported and gifts he has not reported. In 2004, “The Los Angeles Times” nailed him, frankly, for accepting tens of thousands of dollars worth for presents, including tires and also money for a relative‘s education. After that, Justice Thomas simply stopped reporting that he had received any gifts.
From 2003 to 2007, Mr. Thomas also stopped reporting the money his wife was paid as a political activist and advocate. Then he retroactively disclosed her income and said he just hadn‘t understood the forms for those four years.
Now, “The New York Times” reports that Justice Thomas has been riding around on Harlan Crow‘s private jet and Harlan Crow‘s private enormous yacht. He‘s also been hanging out at Mr. Crow‘s summer estate in the Adirondacks, which looks really nice.
And all of these things would all constitute gifts. But Justice Thomas is not reporting them.
So, we don‘t really know what even he guesses they are worth.
This is not just a matter of checking off box A column B so people can see more meaningless information about their officials. Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled eight-to-one in a voting rights case—eight-to-one, they ruled against an institute that has ties to Mr. Harlan Crow, the Dallas real estate tycoon.
The one lone vote for the institute connected to Harlon Crow came from Clarence Thomas, Mr. Crow‘s old friend on the Supreme Court.
You heard about that new multimillion dollar museum being built in Clarence Thomas‘ hometown?
Joining us now is Ian Millhiser, attorney, policy analyst and blogger for the Center for American Progress.
Ian, thanks very much for your time. Nice to have you here.
IAN MILLHISER, ATTORNEY: It‘s good to be here. Thank you, Rachel.
MADDOW: You wrote today in think progress about these revelations in “The Times.” And other things we‘ve learned about Justice Thomas and you compared him to former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas. That is a pretty staggering blow to levy at any sitting justice.
Why did you make that comparison?
MILLHISER: Because they have so much in common. Justice Fortas was disgraced and was forced to resign because he was caught in a gifting scandal. That was a coalition of wealthy businessmen who gave him thousands of dollars, and then he had an individual sugar daddy who gave him thousands of dollars more.
And when you compare Fortas‘ facts to what‘s going on with Thomas, Fortas had his sugar daddy, Thomas has Harlan Crow. Fortas has coalition of businessmen. Thomas has the American Enterprise Institute, which is corporate-aligned think tank that frequently files briefs in front of Thomas‘ court and they gave a gift worth $15,000 to Justice Thomas. And Justice Thomas does not recuse himself from cases where AEI files briefs.
So, I‘m having a great deal of trouble finding a difference between these scandals. American has seen this movie before. And when we saw it before, it ended with the villain resigning in disgrace.
MADDOW: Reading some reaction to this “New York Times” reporting on the right, they‘re not actually questioning whether or not Harlan Crow has done all the things that “The New York Times” has reported he has done, whether he‘s provided Justice Thomas with all the things he‘s reported to have provided him.
What they‘re questioning is whether or not Justice Thomas accepting these things is anything unethical. I mean, after all, Supreme Court justices are not technically bound by the code of conduct for federal judges even though they are supposed to follow it.
MILLHISER: Well, again, when we talk about the Supreme Court, we should be talking about precedent. I think the Fortas precedent is very clear. The two incidents are so similar that if Thomas were to do what Fortas did, he would have to resign.
Of course, the trouble with Clarence Thomas is this is the justice who has been most unlikely to follow precedent. If you look at his interpretation of the Constitution, you know, Rachel, in Clarence Thomas‘ America, whites-only counters are permitted and federal child labor laws are forbidden.
So, he departs wildly from what has come before him. You see that in his jurisprudence. And, unfortunately, I think you‘re going see it in how he handles this ethics scandal.
MADDOW: How significant do you think the reporting is that Harlan Crow, the same donor and contributor and supporter and friend to Justice Thomas paid a half million dollars to help his wife start her Tea Party group? How significant do you see that?
MILLHISER: I think that‘s pretty significant, especially because that Tea Party group, I believe, has been involved in supporting the Affordable Care Act. Ginni Thomas has been the head of two Tea Party groups. The first one opposed the Affordable Care Act, and the second one we don‘t know.
She‘s now a lobbyist—head of a lobbying group for the Tea Party. And we don‘t know who her clients are. And that raises its own ethics scandal because if Ginni Thomas has accepted one dime to lobby to get the Affordable Care Act repealed, that creates a recusal problem for her husband. She cannot be paid to bring about a resolve and then have her husband vote to make that resolve happen.
MADDOW: Ian Millhiser, attorney and policy analyst for the Center for American Progress—thanks for joining us tonight. It‘s nice to have you here.