Sunday, 01 Oct 2023

The US supreme courts alleged ethics issues are worse than you probably realize | Moira Donegan

The US supreme courts alleged ethics issues are worse than you probably realize | Moira Donegan


The US supreme courts alleged ethics issues are worse than you probably realize | Moira Donegan

It was a short letter. John Roberts, chief justice of the US supreme court, was brief in his missive to Democratic senator Dick Durbin, who chairs the Senate judiciary committee. Citing "separation of powers concerns and the importance of preserving judicial independence", Roberts declined to appear before the committee to discuss disturbing recent revelations of ethics violations at the court.

Congress is meant to exert checks on judicial power - to investigate or even impeach judges who abuse their office or interpret the law in ways that violate its spirit, and to affirm that the elected branches will hold more sway over policy than the appointed one. But the chief justice's show of indifference to congressional oversight authority reflects a new reality: that there are now effectively no checks on the power of the court - at least none that Democrats have the political will to use - and that the justices can be assured that they will face no repercussions even if they act in flagrant violation of ethical standards. It seems that they intend to.

The committee summoned Roberts to testify because it appears that he's not exactly running a tight ship. On 6 April, an investigation by ProPublica found that Justice Clarence Thomas had, over decades, accepted millions of dollars' worth of private plane flights, "superyacht" trips and luxury vacations from the Texas billionaire and conservative megadonor Harlan Crow - and that, in alleged violation of federal ethics law, he had not disclosed almost any of it.

Subsequent reporting revealed that Crow had in fact bought Thomas's childhood home in Savannah, Georgia, where the justice's elderly mother still lives, along with several plots on the block. After paying Thomas for the real estate, the billionaire cleared local blight, made significant renovations to the house and allowed Thomas's mother to continue living there, rent-free.

None of those transactions had been detailed on Thomas's ethics forms, either. In addition to the soft influence Crow would have been able to buy with his extensive largesse, the billionaire's generous gifts also seem to have created a direct conflict of interest for Justice Thomas: Crow's firm had business before the US supreme court at least once, and Thomas did not recuse himself from the case.

It is not Thomas's first time in ethical hot water. He was famously accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, including Anita Hill, during his time in the Reagan administration as head of the employee-rights protection watchdog, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He has been accused of having perjured himself in his subsequent testimony about his behavior toward Hill at his confirmation hearings.

During his long tenure on the court, he has repeatedly had trouble filling out his financial disclosure forms correctly. Once, he failed to report more than half a million dollars in income that his wife, the conservative activist Ginni Thomas, received from the rightwing Heritage Foundation. He said at the time that he had misunderstood the forms. That was also his excuse regarding Harlan Crow's largesse.

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