Clarence Thomas’ Abe Fortas problem

After a series of embarrassing revelations over the last several months, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ year got a little worse yesterday. The New York Times reported that the right-wing jurist maintains an “ethically sensitive friendship” with Dallas real estate magnate and GOP financier Harlan Crow.

Despite the fact that Crow’s company has multiple cases in the federal court system, he’s apparently showered Thomas with lucrative gifts, including a massive check to the justice’s wife to start her lobbying organization, and a multimillion-dollar deal in which Crow created a museum at a cannery where Thomas’ mother worked.

Much of this would seem to run afoul of the code of conduct for federal judges, which Supreme Court justices are not bound to follow, but which current members have said they would adhere to.

Ian Millhiser notes that situations like these are not without precedent, but the last justice to get caught up in a similar controversy was forced to resign.

[T]he Thomas scandal is little more than a remake of the forty year-old gifting scandal that brought down Justice Abe Fortas. Like Thomas, Fortas liked to associate with wealthy individuals with potential business before his Court. And like Thomas, Fortas took inappropriate gifts from his wealthy benefactors.

Fortas’ questionable gifts first came out when President Johnson nominated him for a promotion to Chief Justice of the United States in 1968. Fortas had accepted $15,000 to lead seminars at American University — far more than the university normally paid for such services — and the payments were bankrolled by the leaders of frequent corporate litigants including the vice president of Phillip Morris. Fortas survived this revelation, although his nomination for the Chief Justiceship was filibustered into oblivion.

Just a year later, the country learned that Fortas took another highly questionable gift. In 1966, one year after Fortas joined the Court, stock speculator Louis E. Wolfson’s foundation began paying Fortas an annual retainer of $20,000 per year for consulting services. Fortas’ actions were legal, and he eventually returned the money after Wolfson was convicted of securities violations and recused himself from Wolfson’s case, but the damage to Fortas — and the potential harm to the Supreme Court’s reputation — were too great. Fortas resigned in disgrace.

The controversies aren’t identical, of course, but given the scope of Thomas’ connection to Crow, the generosity Crow has shown towards Thomas, and the fact that Crow has business before the federal judiciary, there are parallels.

At a minimum, it doesn’t inspire confidence in Thomas’ integrity as a justice. In January, we learned 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 now this.

I’d still love to know what the reaction would be if Thomas were a liberal justice appointed by a Democratic president. Just how loud would the calls from the right for his resignation be? How many hearings would Senate Republicans hold? How many “special reports” would Fox News run?