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Kagan worried about bagels while Clarence Thomas lived large with Harlan Crow

A new report draws a glaring ethical distinction between the two justices.


Justice Elena Kagan was concerned about the ethical implications of receiving bagels and lox from her high school friends. Really.

It seems quaint to contemplate that newly reported anecdote, but it’s all the more important to do so in light of the years of lavish, unreported gifts that Justice Clarence Thomas received from GOP billionaire Harlan Crow.

The Forward reported on Tuesday:

A group of women who went to high school with Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wanted to send her bagels and lox from Russ & Daughters, the legendary deli on the Lower East Side. But they scrapped the plan after Kagan expressed concerns about the court’s ethics rules for reporting gifts…. The idea of sending the appetizing spread was proposed in February 2021 and abandoned soon after.

As the bagel report correctly observed, the Barack Obama appointee’s concerns “are newly relevant in contrast with the scandal surrounding Justice Clarence Thomas, who failed to disclose luxury vacations and other gifts from billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow.”

The bagel report comes as the Senate is probing the Thomas/Crow connection and the broader issue of the Supreme Court lacking a binding ethics code. Against that backdrop, the Kagan anecdote is somewhat heartening; it might give peace of mind to the people affected by her work, whether one agrees with her opinions or not.

But it reinforces that the same can’t be said for Thomas — who, it must be pointed out, is part of the court’s GOP-appointed supermajority, while Kagan is a member of its three-justice minority that can only sound the alarm when it comes to the most crucial issues. Another member of that supermajority, Chief Justice John Roberts, couldn’t be bothered to testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week on the subject of his court’s ethics.

So the lighthearted bagel story merely reinforces that we cannot rely on all of the justices — especially the ones who wield the most power — to err on the side of caution or even deign to answer questions about ethics issues. Kagan, it seems, can police herself, but the same cannot be said for all of her colleagues.

And even if every justice had a nice bagel story, that wouldn't lessen the need for a binding, enforceable ethics code.

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