-By Michael B Keegan
June 23, 2011- 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.