The ethically-challenged Clarence Thomas

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas hasn’t had a good year. With a stream of new evidence that puts the far-right jurist in an even more negative light, 2011 appears to be getting worse for Thomas.

We learned in January, for example, that Thomas was required to report his wife’s income on his financial disclosure forms, but for several years, for reasons that remain unclear, he chose not to. A month later, reports surfaced that Thomas may have lied about his role at a political retreat for wealthy conservatives, organized by the right-wing Koch Brothers, where participants discussed legal strategies for overturning campaign finance laws — laws that Thomas later ruled on. His wife’s bizarre right-wing activism and lobbying efforts have also raised eyebrows.

And today, the New York Times has a fascinating report on Thomas’ “ethically sensitive friendship” with Dallas real estate magnate and right-wing financier Harlan Crow.

The two men met in the mid-1990s, a few years after Justice Thomas joined the court. Since then, Mr. Crow 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 and reportedly providing $500,000 for Ms. Thomas to start a Tea Party-related group. They have also spent time together at gatherings of prominent Republicans and businesspeople at Mr. Crow’s Adirondacks estate and his camp in East Texas.

In several instances, news reports of Mr. Crow’s largess provoked controversy and questions, adding fuel to a rising debate about Supreme Court ethics. But Mr. Crow’s financing of the museum, his largest such act of generosity, previously unreported, raises the sharpest questions yet — both about Justice Thomas’s extrajudicial activities and about the extent to which the justices should remain exempt from the code of conduct for federal judges.

Although the Supreme Court is not bound by the code, justices have said they adhere to it. Legal ethicists differed on whether Justice Thomas’s dealings with Mr. Crow pose a problem under the code.

The museum, in this case, is in Pin Point, Georgia, home to a seafood cannery where Thomas’ mother worked. The justice ran into the owner of the old cannery site a few years ago, and asked what was to become of the deteriorating facilities. The owner hoped to see the buildings preserved, and Thomas connected the owner to “a friend” the owner was urged not to identify.

The friend, of course, was Crow, who financed the multimillion-dollar purchase and restoration of the cannery, and helped build a museum about the culture and history of the community, in the process giving a major boost to one of the jurist’s pet projects.

The code of conduct for federal judges says jurists “should not personally participate” in raising money for charitable endeavors, and Thomas certainly appears to have done exactly that.

And as part of the larger context, it’s worth noting that Crow, whose business has several cases pending in federal courts, has been extremely generous, not only to prominent GOP causes, but also to Thomas directly. “In addition to giving him the Douglass Bible, valued 10 years ago at $19,000, Mr. Crow has hosted the justice aboard his private jet and his 161-foot yacht, at the exclusive Bohemian Grove retreat in California and at his grand Adirondacks summer estate called Topridge, a 105-acre spread that once belonged to Marjorie Merriweather Post, the cereal heiress.”

I’m curious, if Thomas were a liberal justice appointed by a Democratic president, just how loud would the calls for his resignation be? How many hearings would Senate Republicans hold? How many “special reports” would Fox News run?