“after ProPublica revealed that Justice Clarence Thomas frequently takes lavish vacations funded by billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow, Thomas attempted to defend himself by claiming that this sort of “personal hospitality from close personal friends” is fine because Crow “did not have business before the court.”
As it turns out, that’s not true. As Bloomberg reports, the Supreme Court — including Justice Thomas — did briefly consider a $25 million copyright dispute involving a company that Crow was a partial owner of in 2005. At that point, Crow had already given a number of gifts to Thomas, including a $19,000 Bible that once belonged to Frederick Douglass.
As ProPublica later revealed, Crow even paid for the private school education of Thomas’s grandnephew, who Thomas said he is raising “as a son.” That includes tuition at a boarding school that charged more than $6,000 a month.
Similarly, if the rule is that justices must be extra careful when dealing with people who have business before the Supreme Court, then Justice Neil Gorsuch may also have violated this rule. According to Politico, a tract of land that Gorsuch owned with two other individuals was on the market for nearly two years before it found a buyer — nine days after Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court. The buyer was the chief executive of Greenberg Traurig, a massive law firm that frequently practices before the Supreme Court.
As Politico notes, “such a sale would raise ethical problems for officials serving in many other branches of government,” but the rules governing the justices are particularly lax.
There is a federal statute which requires all federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, to recuse themselves from any case “in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned,” but there is no effective enforcement mechanism to apply this vague law to a Supreme Court justice.
Meanwhile, while lower federal judges must comply with a lengthy Code of Conduct for United States Judges, the nine most powerful judges in the country are famously not bound by this code of conduct — although Chief Justice John Roberts has claimed that he and his colleagues “consult the Code of Conduct in assessing their ethical obligations.”
The result is that the nine most powerful officials in the United States of America — men and women with the power to repeal or rewrite any law, who serve for life, and who will never have to stand for election and justify their actions before the voters — may also be the least constrained officials in the federal government.
And much of the blame for this state of affairs rests with the Constitution itself.”
“The last time Thomas’s relationship with this billionaire made national headlines was probably 2011, after a series of news stories described some of the expensive gifts Thomas received from Crow and from organizations affiliated with Crow. That same year, Chief Justice Roberts used his annual Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary to defiantly rebut calls to apply additional ethical rules to the justices.””
“The Constitution gives Congress the power to create lower federal courts, Roberts argued, and that empowers Congress to help oversee them. The Supreme Court, by contrast, is created by the Constitution itself, and that suggests that Congress has less power to constrain the justices.”
” there is no higher court than the Supreme Court, and thus nobody that can review a justice’s refusal to recuse from a case — Roberts wrote that this is “a consequence of the Constitution’s command that there be only ‘one supreme Court.’” And Roberts argued that it would be “undesirable” to allow a justice’s colleagues to review their decision not to recuse because the other justices “could affect the outcome of a case by selecting who among its Members may participate.””
“The Constitution provides that federal judges shall “hold their offices during good behaviour,” a provision that’s widely understood to require a judge to be impeached before they can be removed from office. And the impeachment process requires two-thirds of the Senate to vote to remove a justice from office — meaning that, in the current Senate, 16 Republicans would need to vote to remove Thomas, even if the GOP-controlled House agreed to begin an impeachment proceeding against him in the first place.”
“both parties have an extraordinary incentive to appoint ideologically reliable judges to the courts, and to protect them. Once a staunch conservative like Thomas (or Gorsuch) is in office, Republicans have an overwhelming incentive to keep that justice in his seat regardless of whether the justice behaves unethically.”
” The entire system is set up, in other words, in a way that rewards political parties that treat the judiciary as a partisan prize. It encourages presidents to appoint reliable partisans to the Supreme Court whenever they get the chance to do so. And, because neither party is likely to control 67 Senate seats any time soon, it also gives each party a veto power over any attempt to remove a justice — even if that justice is corrupt.”