Over the past few months, Justice Clarence Thomas admitted to failing to disclose nearly $700,000 in income that his wife received over two decades from a variety of (conservative) special interest groups. This violates both federal law and the nation’s faith in Thomas’ ability to exercise his duties ethically and responsibly. This issue should receive a high level of scrutiny up to and including a Senate review of whether or not to pursue impeachment proceedings.
The integrity of our judicial system hinges on the belief that judges will be neutral arbiters, removed from the corruptions of politics and campaigns. The Canons of Judicial Conduct proscribed by the American Bar Association clearly state, “A judge shall not convey or permit others to convey the impression that any person or organization is in a position to influence the judge;” the Canons further state, “A judge shall not permit family, social, political, [or] financial...interests to influence the judge’s judicial conduct or judgment.”
These documents are not suggestions. Violation of the Canons can lead to discipline by the legal community, up to and including disbarment. Further, willful failure to disclose personal finances as a sitting judge is a violation of federal law, punishable by up to a $50,000 fine and/or one year imprisonment for each failure to disclose. For Thomas, he failed to disclose for 20 years.
This blatant disregard for federal law rightfully calls Thomas’ motivations and competence into question. Among the organizations Thomas failed to tell the public about was Citizens United, the infamous organization that opened the floodgates to private money in campaigns in a Supreme Court opinion. In 1991, Citizens United spent $100,000 for attack ads on senators who opposed Thomas’ nomination. Thomas cast his vote in favor of Citizens United in the Court’s opinion.
To raise further questions, members of the blogosphere have put together a peculiar timeline of Ginny Thomas’ private sphere activity that seems to suggest she profited substantially off of insider knowledge concerning the 2010 Citizens United decision, which upheld unlimited corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections.
However, whether the accusations have merit or whether Thomas would have decided cases differently does not adequately address the need for further inquiry. The mere fact that Thomas knowingly checked the box marked “none” on his financial disclosure forms for two decades should be enough to investigate his lies. Judicial integrity is the primary element that inspires faith in our law system. To have one of our nation’s highest judges flaunt the law so willingly is inexcusable.
Unquestioning faith in the decision-making ability of the nation’s high court judges is no longer enough. While the rules that bind all other judicial officers are merely “guiding” to the Supreme Court, the nonchalant disregard for long-standing principles of integrity that occurred in the past few years should no longer be ignored. Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia often attend political strategy and fund-raising get-togethers, using their names to draw in attendees. Justice Samuel Alito lends his name to fund-raising events, a move that would land any other judge in front of the local ethics review board.
In 2002, the Supreme Court threw out a case decided by the West Virginia Supreme Court because the judicial campaign of one of the justices’ had received substantial contributions from the winning party. The Supreme Court called the West Virginia ruling a violation of constitutional due process because of the “extreme” conflict of interest. Thomas dissented.
If Thomas was willing to lie for 20 years about $700,000 that his wife was receiving from special interest groups arguing cases before him, what other information might be hidden away? Thomas’ disclosure failures are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the question of potential impropriety.
At the very least, Thomas’ disclosure woes should be fully investigated either by an independent oversight committee within the federal judiciary or the Senate Judiciary Committee. This investigation would provide for increased transparency and the opportunity for Thomas to clear the air concerning his personal finances and potential conflicts of interest. Failure to do so would only increase public distrust in the neutrality of our courts and undermine the integrity that the federal judiciary needs to be effective.
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