The Clarence Thomas Scandal Is Somehow Looking Even Worse

ProPublica reports that Thomas was in debt, frustrated with his salary, and implying he’d resign from the Supreme Court if his financial situation didn’t change—just before Harlan Crow and other conservatives started lavishing him with expensive gifts and luxury vacations. 
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas sits for a formal group photograph at the Supreme Court in Washington DC US on Friday...
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas sits for a formal group photograph at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, US, on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022.Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Before he began receiving expensive gifts and luxury vacations from Harlan Crow and other conservative benefactors, Clarence Thomas reportedly expressed significant concerns about his financial situation—even prompting concerns from a Republican lawmaker more than 20 years ago that he might resign from the Supreme Court if he could not boost his salary.

“One or more justices will leave soon” if justices aren’t given a raise, Thomas told then Republican Representative Cliff Stearns in 2000, as they flew home from a conservative conference at a Georgia resort, according to ProPublica.

“I intend to look into a bill to raise the salaries of members of The Supreme Court,” Stearns wrote to Thomas afterward. “As we agreed, it is worth a lot to Americans to have the Constitution properly interpreted.”

Congress ultimately did not give justices the major raise Thomas had pushed for, nor did it lift the ban on justices accepting speaking fees, as he had also sought. But a new ProPublica report raises questions as to how and why elite conservatives began lavishing the right-wing justice with gifts soon after—gifts that often went undisclosed by Thomas, in apparent defiance of federal law.

At the time of his conversation with Stearns in 2000, Thomas made $173,600 annually but was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. One of the least wealthy members of the court, he was reportedly frustrated as he sought to finance his lifestyle and raise his young grandnephew—and, as a justice with a lifetime appointment, he had no private sector payday waiting for him on the other side of his tenure unless he left the bench. This prospect concerned Republicans who prized Thomas’s conservative jurisprudence.

“His importance as a conservative was paramount,” Stearns told ProPublica. “We wanted to make sure he felt comfortable in his job, and he was being paid properly.”

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.