8 Reasons Why Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas Must Step Down

by on June 24, 2011 · 21 comments

in American Empire, Civil Rights, Popular

Editor: Here is a concise article on why US Supreme Court Justice Clarance Thomas should resign. In order to pick up most of the links, we urge you to go to the original article here.

Plagued by ethical breaches and links to groups calling for armed insurrection against the U.S. government, Clarence Thomas must resign his seat on the Supreme Court.

By Adele Stan / AlterNet / June 23, 2011

Time was when, at any right-wing gathering, chances were that you’d hear the justices of the Supreme Court derided as black-robed usurpers of democracy. Today, not so much. Ever since the seating of the Roberts court, the right has been pretty happy with high court’s decisions, especially the outcome of  Citizens United v. FEC, the case through which the court, in a decision handed down last year, opened the floodgates of corporate money into the electoral system.

No single justice has been more stalwart for the causes of the right — indeed, even the far right — than Justice Clarence Thomas, who, notes ThinkProgress , may just be the most ethically challenged justice since Abe Fortas was forced to step down from the court in 1969 for accepting tens of thousands of dollars from wealthy benefactors.

While Thomas does not appear to have accepted direct donations (though he has accepted gifts, and possibly luxury travel aboard private jets and a yacht), it is clear that the conduct of his relationships with the wealthy and powerful — and one magnate, Harlan Crow, in particular — present some pretty obvious conflicts of interest, especially in regard to the court’s decision in Citizens United, in which Thomas sided with the majority in declaring corporate campaign funding to be constitutionally protected. Thomas could have recused himself from the case, but he did not.

A New York Times exposé published on June 19 detailed the role of Clarence Thomas’ friend, real estate magnate Harlan Crow, in bankrolling a pet project of the justice’s, the Pin Point Museum and Cannery outside Savannah, Georgia. Crow also funded a Savannah library dedicated to Thomas, and Thomas was given a bust of Lincoln valued at $15,000 by the American Enterprise Institute, to which Crow is a donor, and which files briefs in Supreme Court cases. But other aspects of Thomas’ relationship with Crow are far more troubling, especially Crow’s involvement in providing the seed money for the Tea Party group founded by Thomas’ wife, Ginni.

Now, it appears that Ginni Thomas may have derived a direct benefit from the Citizens United decision. And that is not the only ethically troubling incident in the annals of the Thomases’ professional lives, which we detail below. But if there’s any one big lesson to be learned from the saga of Clarence Thomas and the sullying of the high court, it’s that Supreme Court justices are not bound by the code of ethics that applies to other members of the federal bench; it seems they are not legally bound by any code of ethics at all. In the wake of the Thomas problems, that fact has led more than 100 law professors to sign a letter calling on Congress to make the ethics code for federal judges apply to those who grace the bench of the highest court in the land.

Because of this legal loophole, Thomas cannot be forced off the bench. But, for the sake of the republic he claims to love, he could step down — and should. (A Credo Action petition calling for just that is here. ) At AlterNet, we’ve followed the antics of Thomas and his wife, Ginni, closely since the launching of her Tea Party-aligned advocacy group made news last year. Here we detail the reasons that Thomas must go — both for reasons of conflict, and for the appearance of Thomas’ alignment with groups that have called for armed insurrection against the U.S. government.

1. Conflict of interest - Citizens United and Liberty Central: In November 2009, just two months before the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United was handed down — but just after the case was argued before the court — Ginni Thomas incorporated her Tea Party advocacy group, Liberty Central, as a tax-exempt 501(c)(4). As an issue-advocacy organization that sponsors advertising and endorses candidates, Liberty Central stood to gain directly from the outcome of Citizens United. Assuming that Ginni Thomas drew a salary and/or expenses from the group, the onus on Clarence Thomas was to recuse himself from participating in the Citizens United case, which he did not.

2. Conflict of interest – Harlan Crow’s bankrolling of Liberty Central: When AlterNet first reported on the launching of Liberty Central with Ginni Thomas at the helm, we noted that the group was formed with an initial donation of $500,000 by a then-unnamed donor. Politico has since revealed that donor to be Harlan Crow, a Dallas real estate magnate who is a major donor to political causes, and a good friend of Clarence Thomas — such a good friend that he bestowed upon the justice a Bible that once belonged to Frederick Douglass, a gift valued at $19,000.

3. Soliciting donations? Unanswered questions: The Times revealed that it was Thomas himself who suggested that Algernon Varn, owner of the Pin Point Cannery (where Thomas’ mother once worked), hit up the justice’s good friend, Harlan Crow. Varn told Times reporter Mike McIntire:

And Clarence said, ‘Well, I’ve got a friend I’m going to put you in touch with,’ ” Mr. Varn recalled, adding that he was later told by others not to identify the friend.

The land was subsequently purchased from Varn, to the tune of $1.5 million, by a real estate partnership run by Crow. If Thomas felt no compunction at sending Varn to seek backing, with his imprimatur, from Crow for what may have amounted, according to the Times, to $2.8 million in land and construction costs, it is not unreasonable to suspect it was Thomas’ influence that compelled Crow to donate $500,000 to Ginni Thomas’ organization. Clarence Thomas refused to answer questions submitted by the Times.

4. Calls for insurrection: If Crow’s half-million-dollar donation to Ginni Thomas’ Liberty Central were not troubling enough, there’s Liberty Central itself. As AlterNet reported, at its inception Liberty Central was linked to two groups — the Missouri Sovereignty Project and Gun Owners of America — whose leaders called for the making of war on the U.S. government, and one, Tradition Family and Property, whose leader called the Spanish Inquisition “a beautiful thing.” Each of these groups were listed on the Liberty Central Web site as “Friends of Liberty Central.” Liberty Central officials refused to comment on whether or not the groups had paid a fee or donation to Liberty Central in order to earn the listing.

If a justice of the Supreme Court solicited a donation for a group whose success not only would benefit the justice’s own household, but is also linked to groups that called for war on the government whose constitution the justice is sworn to uphold, that should be enough to warrant his stepping down. (In the wake of controversy over Ginni Thomas’ role at Liberty Central, she stepped down and Liberty Central merged with the Patrick Henry Center. Ginni Thomas then opened a lobbying shop called Liberty Consulting, run from the same address as Liberty Central — an address that turns out to be a mailbox in a UPS store, according to this video by Brad Blog.)

5. Conflict of interest – health-care reform: No sooner had the Affordable Care Act — the health-care reform law that set off the Obama administration’s battle royal with the American right — passed into law than it became apparent that challenges to the law launched by Republican state attorneys general would likely make their way before the Supreme Court. Liberty Central opposed the bill, and appeared at a Tea Party rally sponsored by FreedomWorks calling for its repeal.

It’s one thing for the spouse of a justice to be politically active on issues that may appear before the court, but quite another for a justice to solicit donations, whether implicitly or explicitly, for an organization headed by his spouse that advocates for cases that could appear before the court. At the very least, Clarence Thomas needs to account for his role in securing Liberty Central’s $500,000 in start-up money from Crow.

6. Conflict of interest – Koch Industries fundraiser: In January 2008, Clarence Thomas addressed a fundraising gathering convened in Palm Springs, California, by Koch Industries, the privately held conglomerate helmed by Charles and David Koch, for major backers of the Tea Party movement and right-wing think tanks, including the Heritage foundation, for which Ginni Thomas worked for a number of years. Although, according to the New York Times, a court spokesperson described Thomas’ appearance as “a brief drop-by,” Thomas’ own financial disclosure forms claim reimbursement for an undisclosed sum by the Federalist Society — an organization that receives Koch funding — for four days at Palm Springs.

Either way, the justice appeared at a gathering that is designed to raise money for right-wing institutions that advocate legal opposition to policies enacted by Congress and the Obama administration. Revelations of Clarence Thomas’ appearances before the Koch gathering prompted Common Cause to launch a petition earlier this year, calling on the Department of Justice to investigate the involvement of both Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia in the Koch Industries gathering. The Koch brothers, as both donors to and creators of right-wing institutions, were major beneficiaries of the Citizens United decision (in which Scalia, naturally, also sided with the majority).

7. Failure to disclose spouse’s income: Taken alone, Clarence Thomas’ failure to disclose, for 20 years, his wife’s income from such right-wing institutions as the Heritage Foundation — which also files briefs for Supreme Court cases — might not be reason enough to demand his ouster from the court. After all, he did amend his disclosure forms to provide the relevant information once the “oversight” was reported in the media. But taken in aggregate with the other ethics breaches and questionable activities noted here, it simply adds more fuel to the fire.

8. Travel questions: Thomas has refused to answer questions about whether or not he has been treated to high-style gratis travel to speaking engagements on Harlan Crow’s private plane and his yacht. The Times exposé reveals coincidences that suggest he has.

At a time when Americans’ faith in their institutions of governance is at record lows, the continuing presence of Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court undermines the very underpinnings of democracy. It’s time for him to go.

To sign the Credo Action petition demanding that Thomas step down, click here .

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet’s Washington bureau chief.

Editor: Here’s the original article with all its links (too many for us to duplicate).

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar jettyboy June 24, 2011 at 9:41 am

I think I’ll hold my breath until he does. Shouldn’t be very long should it?

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avatar Ron Ross June 24, 2011 at 10:17 am

What a silly column. Take a look at Sotomayer for a real partisan with deep ties to issues she will vote on. Lets see if she recuses herself. Don’t hold your breath for that one and don’t hold your breath for a NYTimes expose on her.

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avatar Andy Cohen June 24, 2011 at 11:49 am

Sonia Sotomayor has already made it clear that she will have to recuse herself from any case that comes in front of the Supreme Court dealing with the Affordable Care Act, as she was the Solicitor General for the Obama Administration and thus although she may not have worked directly in crafting the law, it could prevent a conflict of interest.

I suppose, though, that you think it perfectly acceptable for a Supreme Court Justice to directly profit from organizations that are actively involved in court cases that are likely to be heard by the Supreme Court? No conflict of interest there, I guess, so no cause for alarm……….unless, of course, it happens to be one of those “liberal” Justices, in which case you’ll be screaming bloody murder!

Because as we all know, “It’s okay if you’re a Republican.”

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avatar The Mustachioed OBecian June 24, 2011 at 2:15 pm

I think you mean Elena Kagan. But I haven’t seen anything where she will recuse herself when the healthcare case comes before the case.

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avatar Andy Cohen June 24, 2011 at 2:34 pm

You’re right, it is Kagan. And she has made comments since her appointment to the bench that she will have to recuse herself if/when the ACA case reaches the Supreme Court.

So to Ron Ross: Why don’t you tell us exactly what cases Sotomayor will likely be hearing that she has a bias against? Put up or shut up!

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avatar Jessica June 24, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Check your CJC. The Code of Judicial Ethics does not require government attorneys who become judges to recuse themselves from cases. This is a unique case.

Kagan (not Sotomayor) has recused herself several time even when she technically was not required to just to avoid the “appearance of impropriety” which is one of the main purposes of the ethics rules. She was not directly involved in healthcare issues as Solicitor General because, among other things, no litigation had commenced at the time she was solicitor general.

Thomas, on the other hand, has covered up his direct financial benefit from his wife’s earnings, despite a clear cut rule that he disclose that information. His wife has a direct interest–both financial and ideological–in the debate, which according to the CJC is also cause for recusal. Unfortunately, at this point the CJC doesn’t technically apply to the Supremes, although the spirit of its aims–to preserve the citizens’ faith in fairness and impartiality of the justice system–is spit upon by judges like Thomas who just flaunt it (as well as a new statute that makes the CJC apply to the Supremes.

There are two options that are legitimate: 1) Thomas should recuse himself or 2) Thomas should be impeached.

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avatar Ken In Kent June 24, 2011 at 10:21 am

Thomas must step down because he stands in the way of the progressive agenda.

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avatar Shane Finneran June 26, 2011 at 6:21 am

No, he should step down because of the 8 reasons clearly articulated above.

Regardless of your political beliefs, Clarence’s conflicts of interests ought to bug you. Conflicts like his undermine our democracy.

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avatar Andy Cohen June 24, 2011 at 11:53 am
avatar Mark Halfmoon June 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Why this obsession with Silent Thomas? He is the least prominent and vocal of the extreme right-wing advocates on the Court. For the most part he simply seems to concur and vote in lockstep with the more vociferous champions of mean-spirited ultraconservative causes.

Sure, he seems to be a rather unsavory character, and is vulnerable to attack because of past sexual harassment and current conflict of interest charges made against him. But he is no more liable for the damage inflicted on this country by this cruel incarnation of the Supreme Court than the other four backward zealots he consistently votes with.

I don’t like Clarence Thomas. I have as many reasons to dislike him as I have nasty names that are inappropriate to call him here. I don’t like him as a man. I don’t like him as a judge.

However, I am puzzled as to why my antipathy for Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito, and possibly the most rabid reactionary to ever sit on the bench, Antonin Scalia, doesn’t seem to be shared by my fellow leftists and screeched from the mountaintops in the same manner it is for Idiot Thomas.

I try my damnedest to avoid going there, but as an modern intelligent self-aware African American man, I am looking about at today’s political landscape and seeing both the American right and left seeming to join forces for the first time in my memory to drive a non-criminal, well-functioning Democratic president from office after only one term.

I’m seeing the American left screaming for the nearly unheard of removal of a Supreme Court Justice that they charge with relatively minor offenses. The American right appear to be mute on the issue.

I’m just saying.

Why is all of this noise being made and energy being spent trying to accomplish something that will not occur? The Republican House will not vote to impeach their winning vote on the Court. The Senate, with a slim Democratic majority, cannot convict with the required two thirds majority. And the only other legal remedy, resignation by Stubborn Thomas is out of the question.

Better to work hard to reelect Obama and future Democratic presidents to keep more right-wing radical justices off the Court and more reasonable liberal and centrists on.

Remember, I’m not calling anyone names. I just want you to ponder this phenomenon and maybe you will see why I’m feeling a little uncomfortable about all this.

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avatar Jessica June 26, 2011 at 2:04 am

I agree with you in practical terms. Electing those who would appoint/approve of justices who would be more in step with today’s reality, who see the Constitution as the living document that it is, requires participation in the electoral process. That is what we must do–and what anyone who cares should encourage others to do.

The point here is that there are co-equal branches of the government, among them the judicial branch. Nine Justices decide on the meaning of the Constitution, which makes them, for all intents and purposes, THE most powerful players in DC, and in terms of leaving a legacy for future generations. To name a few:

What constitutes privacy (and therefore abortion, police actions, parental rights, etc.)
The interpretation of the Commerce Clause (e.g., national healthcare and preemption of state laws such as the intrusive Arizona law criminalizing “harboring” illegals).
The sovereign rights of the government (whether you can rightfully sue it when it gravely injures you (think Valerie Plame).
The “cruel and unusual” provision of the 8th Amendment–whether prisoners who are shackled in the sun for hours on end are being treated with undue cruelty.

The list goes on.

That is why it is important that something be done about Thomas. Or at least that there be some intelligent discussion of his atrocious reasoning (or more often, failure to provide any meaningful reasoning) on these issues.

I have very, very different views from those of Roberts and Alito, but I respect them just the same because they present well reasoned (albeit “judicially active” in the same way that Ginsburg is) arguments. Scalia is a perhaps one of the most intellectual legal thinkers of our time but, for reasons too complex to discuss here, also one of the persons least fit to serve as a Justice.

I do agree with you: we should focus on electing persons who will appoint or approve appointees who will not flaunt ethics rules or approve of atrocious and cruel laws with little reasoning. Bottom line: this all is more of an intellectual exercise than a viable call for change.

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avatar Shane Finneran June 26, 2011 at 7:49 am

Interesting discussion, Mark and Jessica. I’d say Mark answered his own question of “why single out Thomas” when he wrote that Thomas “is vulnerable … because of … current conflict of interest charges made against him.”

It might be a long shot, but if enough people take notice, those conflicts just might lead to a Thomas exit. You never know…

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avatar Andy Cohen June 28, 2011 at 11:34 am

The problem is, Mark, that there are no impeachable offenses levied against the other four. With Thomas, there are very strong charges of ethics violations and conflicts of interest that could very well lead to his dismissal from the bench. To my knowledge, there are no such charges that can be legitimately made against the others. Alito may be a complete asshat and corporate hack; Scalia may be a mindless drone that does nothing but regurgitate what the Koch brothers have spoon fed him; but they’ve done nothing (unfortunately) to justify actually forcing them out. You can raise the conflict of interest issue with Scalia with regards to the Koch brothers, but is it enough by itself?

With Thomas you have his wife’s interests, where she apparently sold her services to Conservative organizations making the point that she has direct access (and thus heavy influence) on a Supreme Court Justice. It directly raises the specter of direct influence peddling to the Supreme Court of the United States. There is also the fact that he failed to report his wife’s earnings from those very conservative groups; his relationship with Harlan Crow–the fact that Crow has had a case before the Supreme Court, and has a stake in others upcoming, and the fact that he has not only donated to build a museum in Thomas’ name, but has offered (at no charge) the use of his yacht and private jet to the Thomases for personal use. He also gave Ginni Thomas $500,000 to start her new lobbying firm, Liberty Central–the one that touts direct access to the Supreme Court to its potential clients. Then there’s the Koch brothers junkets………

If the DOJ can’t put together a strong enough case to force this guy to resign, then there is something very, VERY wrong with the system, and anyone can get away with anything.

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avatar Mark Halfmoon June 29, 2011 at 2:29 pm

The problem is, Andy, that you may think those offenses are impeachable and I may think those offenses are impeachable and Eric Holder and the entire Department of Justice may think those are impeachable offenses. Even the Chief Justice and the other remaining seven Justices on the Supreme Court may think Clarence Thomas should be impeached.

But, under our system of law, if a majority in the House of Representatives will not vote to impeach him, it will not happen. Period. And, even if he is impeached, he will still keep his seat on the Court if only 17 Senators vote not to convict him.

It doesn’t matter how strong a case the DOJ puts together, it cannot force him to resign, unless it blackmails him or threatens to kill his dog. It’s not that “there is something very, VERY wrong with the system,” it is how our system of checks and balances works. If it were easier to do, we would have Justices impeached all the time for political purposes by the party in control of the House. (Remember Clinton?)

But don’t lose hope. There is a remedy. Justice Thomas may be removed from the bench by resigning. (Not likely.) Death. (Is there a God?) OR, we can work our asses off to elect enough liberal Democrats and/or Independents to the House who would be willing to act on these charges and begin impeachment hearings. AND elect a solid 34 Senators who would be willing to convict him. Otherwise, forgetaboutit.

We will just have to render him irrelevant by reelecting President Obama in 2012 and another liberal in 2016, likely to appoint somebody who will counter balance the reactionary leaning Roberts court.

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avatar Ron Ross June 25, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Halfmoon, it sounds to me like you hate Justice Tomas because he’s a conservative African American.

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avatar Mark Halfmoon June 26, 2011 at 11:05 am

I don’t hate him Ron Ross. I hate his reactionary political advocacy from the highest court in the land. I hate his being the shadow, and hand puppet of the sociopathic Antonin Scalia. I hate his self hatred and hatred of his own African American people. But I don’t hate the brother. I was actually trying to defend him against being unfairly singled out of a crowd of ultra-rightwing ideologues for attack.

Ron Ross, it sounds to me like you should read my words more carefully.

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avatar Craig Christo June 26, 2011 at 11:24 am

It sounds to me like you’re trying to bring race into the issue where it doesn’t apply. If you didn’t notice he claims to hate all the conservative judges (Thomas least so) so it would be fair to accuse him of hating Thomas just because he’s conservative. But I see nowhere where Halfmoon implies that because he’s an African American he is somehow obligated to be liberal.

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avatar A Horse With No Name June 28, 2011 at 2:42 am

One glaring omission “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke can?”

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avatar Debra Pilla September 27, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Its time to IMPEACH CLARENCE THOMAS! Get out a petition nationwide and let’s impeach this thief! He’s linked to the Koch Brothers and I feel he’s getting paid by them for votes! The US Justice Dept needs to put a tracer on all his money laundry deeds that have gone unnoticed! His wife is a drunken teabagger! A real drunk!

Signed a Responsible Republican Middle Class American

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avatar Bev Marker January 14, 2014 at 12:23 pm

If makes sense to go after the most vulnerable. That’s Thomas due to his questionable ethics. Abe Fortas was forced to resign for the same type of behavior as Thomas. I agree that Scalia is a bigger danger. It puzzles me that he seems to be known as very intelligent. He is arrogant and sarcastic often, on the bench and in his writings. Any dumb ass can and does that too. Some of his writing appears to bring his religious beliefs into play. I’ve observed the Court in session several times and found him quite annoying.

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