Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ decadeslong friendship with real estate tycoon Harlan Crow and Samuel Alito’s luxury travel with billionaire Paul Singer have raised questions about influence and ethics at the nation's highest court.
Dallas real estate billionaire Harlan Crow paid tuition for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ grandnephew for two years at two private boarding schools, according to a statement released Thursday by a longtime friend of Thomas’.
The statement came in response to a ProPublica story that disclosed Crow had paid the fees at two schools for Mark Martin, a relative who Thomas had legal guardianship of and said he was raising “as a son.” Thomas did not include the payments in the financial disclosures he is required to file each year.
Mark Paoletta, the friend, acknowledged that Crow paid Martin’s tuition at both Randolph-Macon Academy in Virginia and Hidden Lake Academy in Georgia, saying Crow paid for one year at each school. Paoletta did not give a total amount but, based on the tuition rates at the time, the two years would amount to roughly $100,000. Martin attended Randolph-Macon for multiple years, and the statement did not say who had paid for the remainder of his high school education.
Paoletta, Crow and Thomas did not respond to further requests for comment.
The revelation of the tuition payments deepens the financial ties between Crow, a Republican megadonor, and Thomas, who earns $285,000 a year as a Supreme Court justice. Last month, ProPublica reported that Crow had paid for decades of luxury vacations and travel for Thomas and his wife and had bought the home of Thomas’ mother, making tens of thousands of dollars of improvements to it.
“This story is another attempt to manufacture a scandal about Justice Thomas,” Paoletta wrote. “But let’s be clear about what is supposedly scandalous now: Justice Thomas and his wife devoted twelve years of their lives to taking in and caring for a beloved child — who was not their own — just as Justice Thomas’s grandparents had done for him.”
“They made many personal and financial sacrifices to do this. And along the way, their friends joined them in doing everything possible to give this child a future.”
Paoletta asserted that Thomas was not required to report the tuition payments “made directly to these schools” because Martin was not his “dependent child” as defined by federal disclosure law. Thomas has said he was advised he didn’t need to disclose the luxury travel because it was hospitality from a friend.
Legal ethics experts said the justice should have disclosed the payments as a gift because they defray tuition costs that he would otherwise be responsible for paying. Several years earlier, Thomas did disclose a $5,000 gift to help with Martin’s education from another friend. Minor children are seldom responsible for their own tuition. Martin told ProPublica in an interview he had not been aware Crow had paid his fees.
In Washington, prominent Democratic lawmakers renewed calls for ethics reform. One called for a Justice Department investigation.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that ProPublica’s latest report “continues a steady stream of revelations calling Justices’ ethics standards and practices into question.”
“I think that all Justices should be held to the same ethical standards as every other federal judge,” he said. “The highest court in the land should not have the lowest ethical standards.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chair of the Senate Finance Committee who previously sent a letter to Crow requesting a full accounting of the gifts he’s given Thomas, said: “Harlan Crow has been subsidizing an extravagant lifestyle that Justice Thomas and his family could not otherwise afford. This is a foul breach of ethics standards.”
If Crow doesn’t comply, Wyden added, the lawmaker intends to “explore using other tools at the committee’s disposal to obtain this critical information.”
In an interview with CNN, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., reiterated a call for a Justice Department probe and subpoenas to force Thomas to testify before Congress. Chief Justice John Roberts has previously rebuffed invitations to testify before Congress. He cited the “separation of powers concerns and the importance of preserving judicial independence.”
Blumenthal told CNN that “the drip, drip, drip of these destructive disclosures is going to destroy the United States Supreme Court unless there is an effective proper investigation.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who has sought Supreme Court ethics reform for years and has co-authored bills to shore up the ethics rules for justices on the high court, wrote on Twitter: “When does the stench get bad enough that SCOTUS stops the cover-up and ends the mischief? This is on the Chief Justice to solve, plain and simple. Mom’s rent, family tuition, vacations and gifts — and secret? Any other government employee would be fired.”
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, an array of experts — including a retired federal judge and a former attorney general in the administration of President George W. Bush — debated the constitutionality of Congress regulating the Supreme Court, as well as the balancing act between two pillars of American government: checks and balances versus the separation of powers.
Former federal circuit judge J. Michael Luttig, a conservative, sent a letter to the committee ahead of Tuesday’s hearing and argued that Supreme Court justices need to act and appear “beyond reproach.” He said Congress can pass laws to codify ethical standards for Supreme Court justices. But, Luttig added, lawmakers shouldn’t have to.
“The ‘judicial power,’ the power of the Supreme Court, is ultimately dependent on the respect that its judgments command, or not, from the American People,” he wrote. “Whether the Supreme Court is subject to ethical standards of conduct or not is emphatically not a partisan political issue and must not become one.”
During the hearing, Democrats, led by Durbin and Whitehouse, said there is a long tradition of Congress passing laws to regulate the Supreme Court’s administration — which, they said, is decidedly separate from the justices’ decision-making remit. Republicans said lawmakers across the aisle only care about enforcing ethics rules because they dislike the majority-conservative Supreme Court.
“There’s a very selective outrage here,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, ranking member of the committee’s minority side. Some Republicans on the committee cited examples of liberal justices accepting trips in the past but did not distinguish those from Thomas’ unreported trips. “This is not about making the court better,” Graham said, “this is about destroying a conservative court. It will not work.”
Last month, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, publicly criticized Thomas’ relationship with Crow. “If the reports are accurate, it stinks,” he told reporters.
Thursday morning, the Twitter account for the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee invited followers to retweet a tweet featuring a goat emoji, shorthand for the greatest of all time. “RT if you think Justice Thomas is the 🐐”