Smell Test Alert: The Embarrassing Case of Clarence Thomas Gets More Embarrassing

When President George H.W. Bush chose Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991, he called Thomas “the best man for the job on the merits.” This claim was preposterous, and over the course of the 32 years since Thomas was nominated his appointment has been a national embarrassment.

His confirmation was marred by a sweeping under the rug of compelling evidence that while he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Thomas had engaged in repeated acts of crude sexual harassment. On the nation’s highest court for almost one-third of a century, his lack of anything resembling intellectual engagement has been the only notable thing about him. Even to call Thomas an ideologue would seem to elevate him, because the term presupposes that his votes are the thoughtful product of ideology rather than the rapid determination of which political “team” the parties to any case before the Court seem to be on.

However, it’s one thing for a Supreme Court justice to be intellectually languid and reflexively, implacably partisan. It’s another to emit the strong appearance of a conflict of interest and then to affirmatively worsen it.

Thomas’ wife Ginni, a longtime and, one may fairly say, rabidly right-wing lobbyist both for a living and as an avocation, was as unhinged a proponent of former President Donald Trump’s “the election was a hoax” hoax as anyone not under federal indictment. The Jan. 6 Committee unearthed some 21 texts from her to Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows exhorting Team Trump to overturn Joe Biden’s election to keep Trump in power. “Help The Great President stand firm, Mark!!!” she implored Meadows after everyone playing with a full deck had acknowledged that Biden had won. “You are the leader, with him, who is standing for America’s constitutional governance at the precipice,” she wrote in another text. “The majority knows Biden and the left is (sic) attempting the greatest Heist of our History.”

Referring to disgraced and disciplined crackpot Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, Thomas wrote: “Sounds like Sidney and her team are getting inundated with evidence of fraud. Make a plan. Release the Kraken and save us from the left taking America down.” She also emailed Arizona state legislators urging them to impanel a phony pro-Trump slate of electors after Biden carried the state.

Justice Thomas was legally required to recuse himself from any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned, or if he knew his wife had “an interest (in the proceeding) that could be substantially affected by (its) actions.” But in February 2021, when the Supreme Court voted to refuse to hear Trump’s challenge to the 2020 presidential election, Thomas not only refused to recuse himself from voting. He dissented, criticizing his colleagues’ decision as “befuddling.”

Now it emerges that Thomas has accepted (along with his wife) hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of lavish trips on private planes and yachts from conservative megadonor Harlan Crow, and failed to disclose any of this, year after lucky year, for over 20 years, in violation of Supreme Court rules. Crow has been a board member of the American Enterprise Institute since 1996, during which time the Institute has frequently filed friend-of-the-court briefs with the Court on which Crow’s friend Clarence Thomas sits. Just to make things more optically appealing, Crow turns out to be an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia, including a signed copy of Adolf Hitler’s manifesto, “Mein Kampf.” For his part, Thomas assures us that he consulted with unnamed associates who in turn assured him that violating the express terms of Supreme Court ethics rules was OK.

It seems pointless to have Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts investigate a member of his own Court. But the rules seem to have been flouted in a way which further damages the Court’s credibility. One hates to add another investigation to Attorney General Merrick Garland’s plate. But looking the other way once again when it comes to Clarence Thomas doesn’t seem like an option.

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