Justice Clarence Thomas is famous for his silence. While his fellow Supreme Court justices regularly challenge and work out complex points with the lawyers who appear before them, Justice Thomas has not asked a question from the bench for five years and counting. Unfortunately, he has been quiet on another matter as well: the mounting concerns that he has flouted ethics and financial disclosure rules in accepting gifts and favors from wealthy friends who have a stake in the cases he decides.
Justice Thomas can choose not to ask questions. But it's clearly time that he answered some.
Justice Thomas has, for at least the past few years, walked along the blurry edge that divides unethical conduct from acceptable practices on the Supreme Court. He notoriously chose not to disclose major sources of family income on federal forms for more than a decade in violation of federal law. Although he reported no income earned by his wife Virginia, she in fact earned hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even worse, some of the income he failed to disclose came from a conservative think tank that frequently files briefs with the Court. He also drew fire for attending, with Justice Antonin Scalia, a private get-together sponsored by billionaire political powerhouses David and Charles Koch whose pet corporate causes often come across the Justices' desks.
Then, this week, the New York Times broke the story of Thomas' close friendship and mutual back-scratching with a politically active real estate magnate Harlan Crow. Crow, the Times reported, "has done many favors for the justice and his wife, Virginia, helping finance a Savannah library project dedicated to Justice Thomas, presenting him with a Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass [valued at over $19,000] and reportedly providing $500,000 for Ms. Thomas to start a Tea Party-related group." He also, the Times discovered, has been trying to hide his role as the main benefactor behind a multi-million dollar museum in Georgia that is a pet project of the Justice. In addition, the Times story raised concerns about whether some of Justice Thomas's travel was underwritten by Mr. Crow and whether such support was accurately disclosed in the Justice's notoriously inaccurate financial disclosures.
Crow isn't just a friend of Thomas who happens to be rich. He's active in political causes, and has "served on the boards of two conservative organizations involved in filing supporting briefs in cases before the Supreme Court" including one, the American Enterprise Institute, that gave Justice Thomas a $15,000 bust of Lincoln.
Obviously, Supreme Court Justices are allowed to have friends, just like the rest of us. But unlike the rest of us, their friendships -- especially when they involve expensive gifts and multimillion dollar favors -- can result in momentous conflicts of interest, or the appearances of conflicts, that affect the entire country. Who Justice Thomas chooses to befriend is his own private business. But who he or his pet projects receive huge gifts from is all of our business.
Ethics issues on the high court can be tricky, since Justices aren't required to abide by any specific set of rules and don't have a higher court to keep them in line. But many, including Thomas' colleagues Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer, say that the justices hold themselves to the same code of conduct that regulates other federal judges and stipulates that judges "should avoid impropriety or the appearance of impropriety in all situations." Failure to comply with the code of conduct "diminishes public confidence in the judiciary and injures our system of government under law."
This is why the American people have the right to answers from Justice Thomas. Americans have become increasingly frustrated in recent years as the Supreme Court has handed down decision after decision that privileges the interests -- and profits -- of corporations over the rights of individual Americans to hold them accountable. Citizens United v. FEC was one such decision. Another is this week's decision in Dukes v. Wal-Mart, which took away the ability of as many as 1.5 million victims of pay discrimination to band together in court to hold the company accountable for its discriminatory policies. Average Americans can't afford a ride on a private jet or an expensive work of art, let alone afford to give these as a gift to a Supreme Court justice. Even if the motivations behind all these gifts are entirely pure, accepting them casts doubt on a judge's ability to be impartial.
Justice Thomas needs to be open with the American people, all of whose lives are affected by Supreme Court decisions. He needs to tell us who is paying for his pet causes and whether he asked them to do so. He needs to tell us where his family income is coming from and whether it benefits from his work on the Court. He needs to tell us what gifts he's received from individuals and organizations that have a direct interest in the decisions he makes. And he needs to tell us that he will recuse himself from any case that he appears to have a financial interest in.
If Justice Thomas wants us to trust that he will give a fair hearing to all Americans, regardless of cash or connections, he needs to be open and honest with us about the circles of influence he inhabits.
It's time for Justice Thomas to speak up. The Supreme Court's integrity depends on it.
Follow Michael Keegan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/peoplefor