Allowing wealthy individuals and corporations to buy influence from the top court in the land should be illegal, but ethics rules governing the Supreme Court are lax.
We don’t know whether Republican megadonor Harlon Crow gained any favors through his generous gift-giving to Justice Clarence Thomas, but the mere appearance of impropriety should concern the public.
ProPublica reported in April that Crow footed travel costs for Thomas and his wife on luxurious trips, including a 2019 vacation to Indonesia estimated to have cost $500,000. The media outlet uncovered multiple trips and other expenses that Crow covered for Thomas. Crow also paid for the private school education of Thomas’ grandnephew, who was living with him.
Quite the extravagant gifts for a friend.
Crow has denied any quid pro quo related to his generosity. Still, Crow is a man with deep political ties, and his access to Thomas is concerning.
Unlike lower federal courts, the Supreme Court largely governs itself. As a co-equal branch of government, the court has hardly any oversight from lawmakers. Once confirmed, it’s difficult to remove a justice in place for life. Only by impeachment can a justice be removed.
Legal experts have criticized Thomas’ actions, though many have conceded it would be nearly impossible to impeach a Supreme Court justice in today’s political climate. But the court should strengthen ethics rules to avoid similar situations in the future.
Of course, the Supreme Court has refused to uphold rules intended to reduce political influence on elected officials, so it’s probably foolhardy to expect the justices to take serious action. In 2010, the Supreme Court removed restrictions on corporate campaign contributions.
There have been some recent changes. New regulations went into effect in March requiring justices to disclose lodging and gifts they receive. That is a step in the right direction.
But more oversight is needed. The work of the Supreme Court is too important to be swayed by favors and financial gifts.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh said “The Supreme Court is the last line of defense for the separation of powers and for the rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.”
That separation must include barriers between the justices and influencers who might have ulterior motives.
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