"One of these justices is not like the others": Experts say report exposes Clarence Thomas "grift"

The Supreme Court justice has accepted more in gifts than all other members of the court combined, watchdog says

By Charles R. Davis

Deputy News Editor

Published June 7, 2024 9:22AM (EDT)

Associate US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas poses for the official photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on October 7, 2022.  (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
Associate US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas poses for the official photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on October 7, 2022. (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

Chatting with a Republican lawmaker after attending a conservative conference at a five-star resort, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was far from relaxed and rejuvenated.

“One or more justices will leave soon,” he warned the member of Congress, according to a June 2000 memo drafted for then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist in June 2000, as previously reported by ProPublica. Thomas’ gripe: His salary of just under $174,000, or more than $306,000 in today’s dollars, was not enough, and justices like him – at the time composing a narrow 5-4 conservative majority – might just quit “unless the compensation for Supreme Court justices is increased,” according to the memo’s draft, a staffer with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Today Thomas’ salary, adjusting for inflation, has the same buying power as it did 24 years ago. But Thomas has nonetheless been able to level up, doubling his taxpayer-provided income while enjoying time on yachts and private jets provided by wealthy benefactors, including GOP mega-donor Harlan Crow.

Since 2004, Thomas has accepted more than $4 million in donations, much of it undisclosed and only revealed thanks to dogged reporting by ProPublica and others. That is more than every other justice who has served on the court over those same years – combined. As MSNBC economic analyst Steve Rattner commented: “One of these justices is not like the others.”

According to data compiled by Fix the Courts, a nonprofit that advocates stricter ethical rules for the nation’s highest judicial body, the justice who accepted the second most gifts, the deceased Antonin Scalia, came it at just over $210,000; Samuel Alito, coming in third, took $170,000.

“Public servants who make four times the median local salary, and who can make millions writing books on any topic they like, can afford to pay for their own vacations, vehicles, hunting excursions and club memberships — to say nothing of the influence the gift-givers are buying with their ‘generosity,’” Fix the Court founder Gabe Roth said in a statement. “The ethics crisis at the Court won’t begin to abate until justices adopt stricter gift acceptance rules.”

Melissa Murray, a legal expert at New York University School of Law, told MSNBC that Thomas’ gift haul was impressive, if problematic.

“We have seen this sort of trickle out piecemeal, but having it displayed out in the aggregate really does make clear the expanse of the grift – I think that’s the right term for it, it is a grift,” Murray said Thursday. “He’s managed to amass two distinct income streams,” she noted (Thomas’ $4 million in gifts compares to $4.6 million in salary over the same years), the second one coming after he complained about the first. “Suddenly you see the money start rolling in.”

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The gifts are not the only ethical issue with Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment some 30 years ago by a former assistant, Anita Hill. His wife, Ginni Thomas, is a prominent right-wing activist who spent the winter of 2020 trying to overturn a democratic election on behalf of Donald Trump, whose campaign legal team referred to Thomas as their “only chance” to block President Joe Biden’s victory before January 6, 2021.

Instead of recusing himself, Thomas would go on to chide his colleagues, in a February 2021 decision, for not taking up a case brought by Trump and his allies challenging Pennsylvania’s election rules, writing in his dissent that, among other things, “fraud is more prevalent with mail-in ballots.”

Eric Segall, a constitutional law expert at George State University, claimed vindication Thursday, saying the revelations about Thomas’ finances only bolster his argument that the justice has a major ethics problem.

“He is what he was in 1991, corrupt,” Segall wrote on social media. “He is a bad man and a bad judge.”

By Charles R. Davis

Charles R. Davis is Salon's deputy news editor. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as The Guardian, The Daily Beast, The New Republic and Columbia Journalism Review.

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Clarence Thomas Ginni Thomas Samuel Alito