As yesterday got underway, the legal and political worlds were jolted by a new allegation about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas: Harlan Crow, a Republican megadonor and longtime Thomas benefactor, paid the private school tuition for a member of the justice’s family — generosity that the far-right jurist neglected to disclose.
It came against a backdrop of related revelations about Thomas accepting decades’ worth of unreported gifts and luxury trips from Crow, as well as news about the real estate magnate buying property from Thomas, which the justice also failed to disclose.
But as yesterday came to a close, Thomas’ ethics troubles had managed to become even more serious, thanks to a stunning Washington Post report.
Conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo arranged for the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to be paid tens of thousands of dollars for consulting work just over a decade ago, specifying that her name be left off billing paperwork, according to documents reviewed by The Washington Post.
It’s likely that Leo’s name is unfamiliar to most Americans, but in political and legal circles, especially in Washington, D.C., he’s earned a reputation as a "conservative powerhouse" and a judicial activist with few, if any, rivals. Leo is perhaps best known, for example, for having helped run the Federalist Society.
But as part of his extensive reach, Leo has also served as an adviser to other conservative outlets, including a non-profit organization called the Judicial Education Project. In 2012, around the time that the Judicial Education Project had filed a Supreme Court brief in a landmark voting rights case, Leo reportedly instructed Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway — Donald Trump’s future campaign manager — to bill the group and use the money to surreptitiously pay Ginni Thomas.
According to the Post’s reporting, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, Leo told Conway he wanted to “give” Ginni Thomas “another” $25,000, though he emphasized that the paperwork should have “No mention of Ginni, of course.”
The pollster apparently complied: Conway’s firm sent the Judicial Education Project a bill that day for $25,000, and instead of referencing Thomas, the invoice said the money was intended for “Constitution Polling and Opinion Consulting," according to the Post.
The Post summarized, “The arrangement reveals that Leo, a longtime Federalist Society leader and friend of the Thomases, has functioned not only as an ideological ally of Clarence Thomas’s but also has worked to provide financial remuneration to his family. And it shows Leo arranging for the money to be drawn from a nonprofit that soon would have an interest before the court.”
If there’s a compelling defense for this, I can’t think of it. A powerful judicial activist apparently arranged for a conservative non-profit — which hoped to sway the Supreme Court about an important case — to secretly pay the wife of a sitting justice.
Leo didn’t deny any of this, though he told the Post there was nothing improper about the arrangement.
As for where this leaves us, I find it implausible to imagine Thomas resigning from the Supreme Court, in part because his Republican allies continue to stand behind him. In 2016, while on the campaign trail, Trump boasted, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.” Seven years later, Clarence Thomas could stand in the middle of Constitution Avenue and accept bags of cash, and he wouldn’t lose any GOP allies.
It’s, like, incredible.
That said, there are still some questions that might soon be answered. Will Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin press the justice for answers? How? When?
Several congressional Democrats have called for Thomas’ ouster. Will that total grow?
There’s a bipartisan bill pending in the Senate on Supreme Court ethics reform. Can it get more than one GOP co-sponsor?
Finally, far-right Rep. Byron Donalds was on CNN last night and was asked about the intensifying controversy. “Well, listen, first of all, this is, we’re talking about a report from ProPublica,” the Florida Republican said, indifferent to the fact that the revelations have gone uncontested.
He added, “If there’s going to be an investigation, and it’s something where the court has to do that, let’s let the court’s investigation run its course.”
But therein lies the point: There’s nothing to suggest the court’s investigation exists. On the contrary, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has indicated that he believes everything is fine at the high court and there’s no need for any concerns or reforms.
How long are GOP lawmakers prepared to pretend he’s right?