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Clarence Thomas’ newest ethics mess shreds his allies’ defenses

A sitting Supreme Court justice, facing a long list of ethics scandals, appears to have taken undisclosed trips to Koch donor events. This isn't normal.


The details in the latest ProPublica report on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas would be hard to believe were it not for everything we already know about the far-right jurist. The piece begins by noting a 2018 donor summit organized by billionaires Charles and David Koch, and attended by “some of the richest people in the country.”

It’s not the sort of event one would ordinarily expect to find a sitting Supreme Court justice — but Thomas took a private jet to the event anyway.

During the summit, the justice went to a private dinner for the network’s donors. Thomas has attended Koch donor events at least twice over the years, according to interviews with three former network employees and one major donor. The justice was brought in to speak, staffers said, in the hopes that such access would encourage donors to continue giving. That puts Thomas in the extraordinary position of having served as a fundraising draw for a network that has brought cases before the Supreme Court, including one of the most closely watched of the upcoming term.

According to the ProPublica report, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, Thomas failed to report the trip on his financial disclosure forms, and it remains unclear who paid for his flight.

In case this isn’t obvious, let’s note for the record that none of this is normal.

In fact, ProPublica spoke to John E. Jones III, a retired federal judge appointed by George W. Bush, who said, “I can’t imagine — it takes my breath away, frankly — that he would go to a Koch network event for donors.” Jones added that if he’d gone to a Koch summit as a district court judge, “I’d have gotten a letter that would’ve commenced a disciplinary proceeding.”

All of this, of course, comes against an incredibly damaging backdrop: Thomas has faced an avalanche of ethics allegations in recent months, none of which have been discredited or even challenged in any meaningful way. It has led to several congressional Democrats to issue public calls for the justice’s resignation.

But it also comes against the backdrop of a curious defense from Thomas’ allies. I’m reminded of this recent report from my MSNBC colleague Ja’han Jones:

More than 100 former law clerks of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas have released an open letter vouching for the justice’s integrity after multiple reports indicating Thomas has secretly benefited from lavish gift-giving from conservative benefactors over several years.

It’s important to emphasize that one of the signatories was none other than John Eastman, which as Ja’han noted, is problematic for all sorts of reasons.

But in light of the latest revelations, I took a fresh look at the joint statement from Thomas’ allies and was amazed anew at how vacuous it was.

In May, after several highly damaging reports on Thomas’ apparent ethical lapses, some high-profile Republicans — former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, et al. — tried to defend the justice, not by contesting the revelations, but by saying Thomas is a “decent” person and not the kind of guy who does bad things.

The letter from his former clerks offered more of the same. “Justice Thomas is a man of greatest intellect, of greatest faith, and of greatest patriotism,” they wrote. “We know because we lived it. He is a man of unwavering principle. He welcomes the lone dissent. He is also a man of great humor and warmth and generosity. ... His integrity is unimpeachable.”

In other words, the public should discount the allegations, not because they’re false, but because people who’ve worked with Thomas believe he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

The problem with this defense is that it omits an actual defense. A sitting Supreme Court justice, facing a long list of ethics scandals, now appears to have taken undisclosed trips to Koch donor events. To simply assert that Thomas deserves the benefit of the doubt, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, is absurd.