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Justices need to reflect our country’s true values

Ronald Mitchell
Justices need to reflect our country’s true values
Take the money and run. CARTOON: CAGEN LUCE

For a long time, we in this country have looked to the Supreme Court to level the playing field when it comes to injustice in our society. For decades, we have relied on decisions like Brown v. Board of Education that outlawed systemic discrimination in public schools, and the 1966 decision to ban poll taxes in state elections to keep our country’s moral arc bending towards justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said.

But after the reversal of a woman’s right to choose an abortion, it is clear that none of these landmark cases that we as Americans have assumed were settled law are still accepted precedent. As we sit here wondering whether other landmark cases are threatened with being overturned and our rights and freedoms and being taken away, we need only to look at the Supreme Court’s poster child for dubious ethics, Justice Clarence Thomas. He received his higher education at prestigious schools in New England, at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester and Yale Law School in New Haven, but appears to have learned little about how to behave ethically as a public official.

Over the past few months, a tremendous number of facts have come out about the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year worth of payola that Thomas has received in the form of private jet flights and mega-yachting vacations. Most of them, but not all, were paid for by a billionaire named Harlan Crow. Crow also bought Thomas’s mom’s house in Savannah, Georgia, fixed it up and, by all accounts, is letting her live there rent-free. That is where Thomas spent most of his childhood, in a modest home built by his enterprising grandfather. Crow has failed to respond to questions about that housing arrangement. His silence speaks volumes.

Then of course there’s all the inappropriate influence Thomas has on cases concerning his wife Virginia, a right-wing Republican who appears to have been involved in the planning and implementation the Jan. 6 attempt to overthrow our freely and fairly elected government.

Oh, did I forget to mention that Crow has a large collection of Nazi memorabilia? (You can’t make this stuff up.) As one comedian recently quipped, “This begs the question: Does Clarence Thomas even know that he’s Black?” All this would be funny if it was not for the fact that the future of our democracy and our civil rights are at stake. 

Over the next two years, the Supreme Court will be deciding many cases that could have tremendous consequences for our individual freedoms, corporate oversight, college access for students of color and voting rights. All of which means our literal democracy is hanging in the balance.

What oversight is there on Supreme Court justices to hold them accountable when they appear to be taking payola in exchange for their votes? Thomas maintains the court’s spare ethics rules allow him to receive hospitality from a personal friend like Crow. This view, however, is widely disputed by court scholars. The claim is that the justices will regulate themselves and recuse themselves from any case if they have a conflict of interest.

But we know that’s not true with Clarence Thomas. He would not even recuse himself in a case against Monsanto when he had just recently left the company’s board and was arguably still on the board when it made the decision that landed the agrochemical company in court — the very textbook description of conflict of interest. Thomas launched his rise to the high court in Missouri, where Monsanto was based before being acquired by a foreign company. Since all this evidence of suspected payola has come out, Chief Justice John Roberts has done nothing to hold Thomas accountable.

All these facts do not bode well for the future of our democracy. It is clearly time to require these justices to live up to the spirit of the laws they are sworn to uphold. When a Supreme Court justice takes what adds up to millions of dollars in payola over a few years in clear view of the world, then makes decisions that benefit the person who paid him the payola in the first place, it’s time to change the ethics rules or change the makeup of the court to restore the credibility of this once honored and cherished institution. It’s time to change the court’s make-up to begin to reflect our country’s true values.