June 25, 2011- Associate Justice Clarence Thomas is famous for not asking questions during oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. But that doesn't mean questions shouldn't be raised by the public about his failure to report gifts and his dealings with friend and Dallas real estate mogul Harlan Crow.
A major contributor to conservative causes, Mr. Crow has an unusual, if not improper, relationship with the justice. According to The New York Times, the Texan is financing the multimillion-dollar purchase and restoration of the seafood cannery in Georgia where the justice's mother worked as a crab picker.
The restored facility also will house a cultural center and museum extolling the history of Pin Point, Ga., the birthplace of Justice Thomas. But the justice may have played a role in getting Mr. Crow to underwrite the museum, which has drawn criticism from close watchers of judicial ethics.
The friendship between the justice and the donor also has resulted in the underwriting of a Savannah library dedicated to Justice Thomas and a $500,000 donation to a tea party-affiliated group started by the justice's wife. Justice Thomas is also the owner, thanks to Mr. Crow, of a $19,000 Bible that belonged to 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass and a recipient of Mr. Crow's hospitality aboard his private jet and 161-foot yacht, at the Bohemian Grove retreat in California and his Adirondacks summer estate.
The strict code of conduct for federal judges says they "should not personally participate" in raising money for charitable causes. Donors could feel pressured to contribute or take advantage of the situation to seek judicial favor. Although the code does not apply to the Supreme Court, there is no reason that it shouldn't. Mr. Crow's companies have been involved in cases that have reached appellate courts.
The justices must follow, however, laws that forbid conflicts of interest by federal officials and that require reports on gifts. Justice Thomas stopped disclosing his gifts in 2004, when the Los Angeles Times reported he had accepted $42,200 in gifts in the past six years — more than any other justice.