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The biggest flaw in Justice Clarence Thomas’ newest complaints

Justice Clarence Thomas wants the public to believe the serious accusations he’s faced are “lies.” He’s going to have to be far more specific.


As a matter of jurisprudence, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has reason to be pleased. After Donald Trump and Senate Republicans added three new more conservative members to the high court, the right now dominates the institution in ways unseen in generations. The result has been a predictable series of reactionary, far-right rulings, including the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

And yet, while Thomas is likely satisfied with the direction of the judiciary, he’s apparently far less happy about the ethics allegations he’s faced. The Associated Press reported:

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas told attendees at a judicial conference Friday that he and his wife have faced “nastiness” and “lies” over the last several years and decried Washington, D.C., as a “hideous place.” Thomas spoke at a conference attended by judges, attorneys and other court personnel in the 11th Circuit Judicial Conference, which hears federal cases from Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

When the far-right jurist was asked specifically about a world that seems meanspirited, Thomas replied, “I think there’s challenges to that. We’re in a world and we — certainly my wife and I the last two or three years it’s been — just the nastiness and the lies, it’s just incredible.”

A New York Times report on the justice’s remarks noted, “It amounted to some of the most extensive public remarks he has made since revelations that he failed to disclose years of lavish trips from wealthy conservatives, like the Texas real estate magnate Harlan Crow, including on private jets and a superyacht.”

Circling back to our earlier coverage, Thomas has faced difficult ethics questions for many years, but his difficulties took a more serious turn last spring. ProPublica published a rather devastating report in early April of last year, shining a light on the generous and undisclosed benefits Thomas has received from a Republican megadonor.

In the weeks and months that followed, ProPublica took the lead on exposing Thomas’ other unusual ties to his wealthy friend, but the outlet wasn’t alone. The Times also took the story further, shining a light on previously unreported benefits the justice has received from a “cohort of wealthy and powerful friends,” thanks to his connections established through the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans.

The Times added fresh reporting in August on one of Thomas’ other wealthy pals providing the sitting justice with undisclosed financing that made it possible for Thomas to buy an expensive recreational vehicle. How big was the loan? Neither the justice nor his friend say. How much did Thomas repay? They wouldn’t say. What were the terms of the loan? They wouldn’t say. Was there a formal loan agreement? They wouldn’t say.

Soon ProPublica published another report that made the entire controversy look considerably worse, noting that Thomas had received “at least 38 destination vacations, including a previously unreported voyage on a yacht around the Bahamas; 26 private jet flights, plus an additional eight by helicopter; a dozen VIP passes to professional and college sporting events, typically perched in the skybox; two stays at luxury resorts in Florida and Jamaica; and one standing invitation to an uber-exclusive golf club overlooking the Atlantic coast.”

In each instance, the far-right jurist’s luxurious benefits “have been underwritten by benefactors who share the ideology that drives his jurisprudence.” Though the precise value of the trips is difficult to measure, ProPublica described it as “likely in the millions” of dollars.

It’s an impossible dynamic to defend: Thomas has lived the life of a wealthy man, thanks to the generosity of his rich, likeminded friends.

As my MSNBC colleague Zeeshan Aleem explained, “There is nothing partisan about calling this what it is: a brazen, shameful abuse of power that undermines the legitimacy of the Supreme Court. That Thomas reportedly took these gifts is alarming enough. That he reportedly took them without disclosing that he had taken them (with rare exceptions) makes it hard to believe that Thomas doesn’t realize how bad this all looks.”

Earlier this year it reached the point at which Thomas became a punch-line to jokes about Supreme Court corruption. (In February, The Onion, a satirical outlet, published a memorable item with a headline that read, “Clarence Thomas Announces 50% Discount On All Favorable Rulings.”)

As all of this unfolded, the justice said effectively nothing, relying instead on political allies who peddled woefully unpersuasive defenses.

But late last week, Thomas, at long last, spoke up — to say that he’s faced “lies.”

I’m afraid he’s going to have to be more specific. Specifically, which of the scandals should the public discount?

Because on the one hand we have a great many compelling, well-sourced, award-winning reports written and published by respected journalists. On the other hand, we have a controversial Supreme Court justice, burdened by decades of controversies, who apparently hopes the public takes his vague assertions at face value, despite his lack of credibility.

This doesn’t seem like an especially tough call.

This post updates our related earlier coverage.