Since ProPublica published an article about the “friendship” between a sitting Supreme Court Justice and a real estate billionaire, most of the attention has been focused on Harlan Crow, the Nazi-memorabilia collecting nepo baby who loves lavishing exorbitant gifts on government officials.
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with looking deeper at the oligarch buying influence in our government, let’s not get distracted from the bigger theat: what Clarence Thomas is selling.
In 30 years on the highest court, Clarence Thomas hasn’t shown a lick of integrity, decency, engagement, or honor. For that exact reason, it can be hard to imagine what exactly Crow is getting for every statue he commissions to delight Clarence Thomas. The justice isn’t changing his rulings for the money or honoraria. He’s not treating cases differently, or trying to sway fellow jurists towards conclusions they would otherwise ignore. To the degree that he has any power or access, it’s hardly unique among the reliably conservative block on the court.
Looking at what passes for reasoning, one might call Thomas mediocre in effectiveness when compared to his colleagues. But that’s irrelevant to his buyers. In lieu of selling his (noticeably absent) soul, Clarence Thomas is selling his submission.
Beyond his ideological devotion to the reactionary right wing, Thomas accepts the luxurious treatment as a promise never to stray or rebel. The trips and gifts are simply in-kind payments for loyalty. It’s Crow’s way of saying — and Thomas’s way of replying — that their interests are permanently and meaningfully intertwined.
As if we needed more proof that billionaires aren’t like the rest of us: While we tend to get dogs or cats as pets, they buy Supreme Court justices.
And maybe if Thomas’s work didn’t deal in the rule of law and consent of the governed, he could contentedly bask in the sun and eat sumptuous meals and fall asleep in mildly inconvenient places in Harlan Crow’s various mansions. Maybe if Thomas weren’t tasked with public service in defense of the Constitution, it would be fine for him to fly on chartered jets and travel on expensive yachts as one citizen being friends with another.
But it is about the law. He is an officer of the court. And it’s not acceptable for him to sell his service.
In a democracy, the federal courts and their members belong to all of us, not merely the ones who can afford custom-made statues of dictators and signed copies of Mein Kampf. The judicial oath that all justices take requires adherents to swear that they will administer fairly to the rich and the poor alike. While we can all recognize that hasn’t always been the reality, it becomes virtually impossible when the rich are handing out all-expenses-paid vacations across tropical archipelagos.
So while it’s not like Clarence Thomas has been a model of judicial restraint and ethical prudence his entire time on the bench, it’s a legitimately unacceptable state of affairs to let him continue issuing decisions now that we know for certain Harlan Crow is serving him big, fat checks and buying his properties to do so. Not just because it’s obviously absurd to have billionaires paying for verdicts. Not just because Thomas is openly corrupt in accepting these bribes as rewards for his obedience.
But because any “justice” that comes with a price tag is worthless.