The Clarence Thomas Scandal Is Somehow Looking Even Worse

Prior to receiving costly gifts and lavish trips from conservative figures like Harlan Crow, Clarence Thomas had raised serious worries about his financial state. Reports suggest that over 20 years ago, his financial concerns were so significant that they prompted concerns from a Republican legislator who feared he might step down from the Supreme Court if he couldn't improve his income.

During a flight home from a conservative conference at a Georgia resort in 2000, Clarence Thomas reportedly informed then-Republican Representative Cliff Stearns that if justices didn't receive a raise, one or more of them might depart soon, as per ProPublica.

I plan to explore a proposal aimed at increasing the salaries of Supreme Court members," Stearns expressed to Thomas afterward. "As we discussed, it holds great value for Americans to ensure the proper interpretation of the Constitution.

Congress did not grant the substantial raise that Thomas advocated for justices, nor did it remove the prohibition on justices accepting speaking fees, a change he had also pursued. However, a recent ProPublica report raises inquiries regarding the rationale behind elite conservatives suddenly bestowing lavish gifts upon the conservative justice. These gifts, frequently undisclosed by Thomas, appear to contradict federal law.

In 2000, during his discussion with Stearns, Thomas had an annual income of $173,600 but faced debts amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. As one of the less affluent members of the court, he encountered frustrations while managing his lifestyle and supporting his young grandnephew. Additionally, being a justice with a lifelong tenure, he lacked a private sector career awaiting him after leaving the bench. This situation raised concerns among Republicans who valued Thomas's conservative legal principles.

Stearns emphasized the significance of his conservative role, stating to ProPublica that ensuring his comfort in the job and appropriate compensation were our priorities.

Thomas’s situation did improve, but not through official Congressional action: He received gifts, travel, and yacht rides from conservative power players like Crow, who also paid for Thomas’s grandnephew’s private school tuition and bought three properties from the justice and his family. The Supreme Court did not immediately return Vanity Fair's request for comment, and Thomas and Crow have previously denied any impropriety. But revelations about the relationship have helped undermine the high court's legitimacy, whose conservative majority has, at times, appeared brazenly political in its approach—including in the Dobbs decision Samuel Alito pushed through in 2022.

After earlier revelations about Thomas became public, pressure from Democrats and watchdogs led John Roberts to implement a formal code of ethics that requires justices to execute their duties “fairly, impartially, and diligently” and to avoid “political activity.” But the new guidelines don’t go nearly far enough, lacking an enforcement mechanism and leaving justices to police themselves—something the latest Thomas revelations make clear they can’t be trusted to do.

These questions of judicial integrity are taking on added urgency as the Supreme Court considers the immunity defense Donald Trump has put forth in an effort to toss the criminal charges he’s facing for attempting to overturn his 2020 election loss. Democrats, including Hank Johnson of the House Judiciary Committee, have called on Thomas to recuse himself from that case, given the involvement of his wife—the conservative activist Ginni Thomas—in those very election subversion efforts. “Your wife’s activities raise serious questions about your ability to be or even to appear impartial in any cases before the Supreme Court involving the 2020 election and the January 6th insurrection,” Johnson and his colleagues wrote to Thomas last week. But as Thomas has not seemed to let ethical concerns stand in his way before, he has not given much reason to expect this time will be any different.

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