The Smearing of Clarence Thomas

The left gins up another phony ethics assault to tarnish the Supreme Court.

By The Editorial Board – April 7, 2023 6:45 pm ET – The Wall Street Journal

Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas – Photo: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS

The left’s assault on the Supreme Court is continuing, and the latest front is the news that Justice Clarence Thomas has a rich friend who has hosted the Justice on his private plane, his yacht, and his vacation resort. That’s it. That’s the story. Yet this non-bombshell has triggered breathless claims that the Court must be investigated, and that Justice Thomas must resign or be impeached. Those demands give away the real political game here.


ProPublica, a left-leaning website, kicked off the fun with a report Thursday that Justice Thomas has a longtime friendship with Harlan Crow, a wealthy Texas real-estate developer. The intrepid reporters roamed far and wide to discover that the Justice has sometimes traveled on Mr. Crow’s “Bombardier Global 5000 jet” and that each summer the Justice and his wife spend a vacation week at Mr. Crow’s place in the Adirondacks.

The piece is loaded with words and phrases intended to convey that this is all somehow disreputable: “superyacht”; “luxury trips”; “exclusive California all-male retreat”; “sprawling ranch”; “private chefs”; “elegant accommodation”; “opulent lodge”; “lavishing the justice with gifts.” And more.

Adjectival overkill is the method of bad polemicists who don’t have much to report. The ProPublica writers suggest that Justice Thomas may have violated ethics rules, and they quote a couple of cherry-picked ethicists to express their dismay.

But it seems clear that the Court’s rules at the time all of this happened did not require that gifts of personal hospitality be disclosed. This includes the private plane trips. ProPublica fails to make clear to readers that the U.S. Judicial Conference recently changed its rules to require more disclosure. The new rules took effect last month.

Justice Thomas would have been obliged to disclose gifts that posed a conflict of interest involving cases that would be heard by the High Court. But there is no evidence that Mr. Crow has had any such business before the Court, and Mr. Crow says he has “never asked about a pending or lower court case.”

The most ProPublica can come up with is that “Crow has deep connections in conservative politics.” Oh dear. One hilarious section reports that a painting at Mr. Crow’s New York resort includes Mr. Crow, Justice Thomas and three friends smoking cigars. One of the friends is Leonard Leo, “the Federalist Society leader regarded as an architect of the Supreme Court’s recent turn to the right,” ProPublica says.

This conspiracy is so secret that it’s hiding in plain sight. Can anyone imagine such a story ever being written about a liberal Justice on the Court?

Justice Thomas said in a Friday statement that “early in my tenure at the court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable.” He added that “these guidelines are now being changed,” as the Judicial Conference announced new guidance. “And, it is, of course, my intent to follow this guidance in the future,” the statement said.


None of this will stop the political stampede to portray the Crow-Thomas friendship as a scandal to tarnish the Justice and the current Court. This campaign has been underway with particular ferocity since the Court’s majority shifted during the Trump years toward Justices who have an originalist view of interpreting the law and Constitution.

Justice Thomas is the leading target because his long-held views on the law have found new adherents. As the longest-tenured Justice now on the Court, he has the power to assign writing duties for opinions when he is in the majority but Chief Justice Roberts isn’t.

“Is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas corrupt? I don’t know,” tweeted Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu. “But his secretive actions absolutely have the appearance of corruption. And he apparently violated the law. For the good of the country, he should resign.” You gotta love the “I don’t know” but he should resign anyway formulation.

The liberal press—pardon the redundancy—has climbed onto its ethical high horse and is demanding “reform” at the Court. “All of this needs robust investigation,” demanded Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin dutifully saluted upon Mr. Whitehouse’s order and said his committee “will act” to impose a new “enforceable code of conduct” for the Court.

This ethics talk is really about setting up an apparatus that politicians can then use against the Justices if there is any transgression, however minor or inadvertent. The claims of corruption are intended to smear the conservative Justices and tarnish the Court to tee up case recusals, impeachment or a Court-packing scheme if Democrats get enough Senate votes to break the filibuster.

It’s all ugly politics, but the left is furious it lost control of the Court, and it wants it back by whatever means possible.

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