More Ethics Trouble for Clarence Thomas

| Wed Sep. 14, 2011 11:54 AM EDT
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

If Clarence Thomas was hoping that liberals might just forget about his cozy ties to a Dallas real estate developer, or his failure for a decade to disclose the hundreds of thousands of dollars his wife earned from a conservative think tank, well, he would be wrong. As President Obama's health care reform bill gets closer and closer to a hearing before the high court, liberal groups are continuing to press for some sort of disciplinary action against Thomas, or at least to force him to recuse himself from hearing the health care case.

To that end, on Tuesday, the left-leaning Alliance for Justice and the good-government group Common Cause asked the Judicial Conference of the United States, which oversees the federal courts, to investigate whether Thomas violated the Ethics in Government Act. The groups allege that Thomas may have violated the act when he failed to disclose his wife Ginny Thomas's compensation—upwards of $700,000—from the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation.

The groups also are asking the Judicial Conference to investigate whether Thomas may have failed to report travel paid for by the Texas real estate developer Harlan Crowe, as reported by the New York Times. The Judicial Conference was holding its semi-annual meeting in DC this week when the advocacy groups sent their letter. If the Conference concludes that the allegations have merit, federal law requires that if it "has reasonable cause to believe has willfully falsified or willfully failed to file information required to be reported" it must refer the case to the attorney general. Common Cause president Bob Edgar said in a statement Tuesday:

In America, no one is above the law, including Supreme Court justices. For more than a decade, Justice Thomas omitted information about his wife’s income, clearly required by the Ethics in Government Act, from his annual financial disclosure report. Surely such a repeated violation, by someone entrusted to apply laws far more complex than the Ethics Act, at least deserves a formal review by the Judicial Conference and the Attorney General.

Odds are slim that even the Judicial Conference is going to ask Eric Holder to investigate Thomas. But you can't really fault them for trying. Thomas's lapses seem egregious enough for some higher authority to take a second look.

Unfortunately, thanks the the separation of powers doctrine, there really isn't a higher authority when it comes to the Supreme Court. Some members of Congress are trying to change that. Also this week, the Alliance for Justice has been trying to rally support for congressional hearings on a bill introduced earlier this year that would force Supreme Court justices to be covered by the code of conduct that applies to other federal judges and create new procedures for when a justice may have to recuse from hearing a case. Given that virtually no Republicans have signed on, this law, too, has no hope of going anywhere, at least not any time soon. But the Democrats behind it get points for trying anyway.

*As a completely unrelated side note, Thomas came to mind as I was reading this article earlier this week about how NASCAR has started installing solar panels and recycling and employing flocks of sheep to mow the track lawns. I have to wonder whether Thomas, a former Monsanto employee, might have second thoughts about his anti-environmental positions now that even NASCAR has gone green. A little-known fact about Thomas is that in his spare time, he and Ginny drive their gas-guzzling, 40-foot custom-built bus to NASCAR races, where they hang out with ordinary Americans who often don't even recognize the Supreme Court's most bitter member. Perhaps some of NASCAR's new-found environmental consciousness will rub off.

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