Just when you think the Supreme Court’s reputation can’t get any worse, along comes Justice Clarence Thomas to prove you wrong.
In what has to be one of the most brazen examples of corruption this side of the Gilded Age, Thomas has been accepting all kinds of gifts from a wealthy Texas real estate mogul without bothering to report them because apparently Thomas didn’t think it was necessary.
An eye-opening report in ProPublica showed that the justice was taking rides of Harlan Crow’s private jet to places like Indonesia and hanging out with Crow and friends at a private retreat, all the while he was proclaiming he was a simple man of the people who prefered to tour America in an RV and visit Walmarts. (Something Thomas actually said in a documentary… which was funded by Crow.)
Twenty years ago, Thomas was called out by the Los Angeles Times for accepting gifts from Crow. The justice found a way to address the issue: he stopped reporting receiving any gifts.
Thomas has tried to brush off the blatant ethical violation as just the hospitality of a friend (who wasn’t a friend until Thomas became a Supreme Court justice). Thomas has already been under fire for the potential conflict of interest his wife represents, with her efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Senate Democrats are calling for Chief Justice John Roberts to investigate Thomas’ love of expensive gifts without telling anyone about it. The Court’s reputation was already in tatters, thanks to the ethical failings of its conservative members, including Thomas. Thomas probably won’t be investigated because the Court holds itself so far above the ethical fray that it doesn’t even follow any judicial code of conduct.
Thomas’ pal Crow is wealthy enough to not care what anyone thinks. He inherited a real estate empire from his father, who built Embarcadero Center in San Francisco and Peachtree Center in Atlanta.
However, Crow has a much more mixed record on LGBTQ+ issues than his friendship with Thomas would suggest. He has even been given an award for his support of trans rights.
In 2017, the Texas legislature was considering a bill that would require people to use the bathroom associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. Crow was one of 14 CEOs that sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott (R) citing their opposition to the bill.
“We strongly support diversity and inclusion,” the CEOs wrote. “This legislation threatens our ability to attract and retain the best talent in Texas, as well as the greatest sporting and cultural attractions in the world.”
Ultimately, the measure failed.
To put the issue into context, the measure created a huge amount of negative publicity for Texas. The bill was being debated even as legislators in North Carolina were furiously backpedaling to undo the economic damage caused by boycotts when the state passed its own bathroom bill just the year before.
Crow’s opposition to the Texas bill earned him an award from the Lesbian and Gay Real Estate Group. “It was really amazing for the LGBTQIA+ community to have that kind of support from the real estate community,” Chris Fraley, founder of the group, said.
No doubt Crow’s opposition, as well as that of the other CEOs, caught the attention of the political establishment. How much was motivated by fears of an economic backlash versus a real commitment to transgender rights is anyone’s guess. Businesses have a long history of saying one thing in support of diversity and then donating to politicians who are anything but supportive of it.
You’d be forgiven for counting Crow among their number. It’s not just a question of considering Thomas, the man who wants to overturn marriage equality, his close personal friend. There is pretty much nothing else in the limited public information about Crow’s political inclinations that would qualify him for grand marshall of a Pride parade. (Another disqualifier: one of Crow’s hobbies is collecting Nazi memorabilia, including a signed copy of Mein Kampf.)
Crow has a long history of active support for conservative causes. In a recent interview, he said his greatest fear was “Marxism.” ProPublica says that he has given more than $10 million in publicly disclosed political contributions to Republicans over the years; he refuses to disclose how much he’s given through dark money groups. Among his pet causes is pushing the judiciary to the right.
One of the recipients of his largesse is the Federalist Society, the conservative legal group to whom Donald Trump outsourced the selection of his judicial nominees, including those for the Supreme Court. The Federalist Society has made opposition to LGBTQ+ rights a cornerstone of its legal vision, as Trump’s court picks have made all too clear.
He even gave $500,000 to Ginni Thomas, the justice’s wife, when she was starting up her Tea Party-affiliated lobbying group more than a decade ago.
In short, Crow is exactly the type of person Thomas would love to hang around with and who would love to hang around with Thomas. As for that brief moment of opposition to the bathroom bill, well, sometimes you have to do things for expediency, even if you don’t believe in them.