Clarence Thomas Proves It’s Time for Supreme Court Term Limits

Yves here. With so many news stories with the volume at 11, the Clarence Thomas bribery scandal (there’s no way to pretty this up even in the absence of an explicit quid pro quo) oddly hasn’t generated the outrage it deserves. If Thomas can’t be impeached, term limits would be a sensible fallback…but if such egregious conduct won’t spur a removal, it’s doubtful any other corrective action is forthcoming.

By Sonali Kolhatkar, an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization. Produced by , a project of the Independent Media Institute

A pair of new investigative reports from ProPublica about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas are a testament to not only the importance of good journalism in a democracy, but also Thomas’s unfitness on the court, and the need for better guard rails against moneyed influence. The first bombshell story, “Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire,” highlighted how a wealthy man named Harlan Crow befriended Thomas after he became a Supreme Court justice and treated him (and often his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas) to luxurious vacations on a near-annual basis. Thomas did not disclose the trips as he was required to. Although he at first refused to speak with ProPublica about the initial story, he eventually made a statement saying he was advised he didn’t need to disclose the gifts.

ProPublica followed that up just days later with another story whose title says it all: “Billionaire Harlan Crow Bought Property From Clarence Thomas. The Justice Didn’t Disclose the Deal.” The property in question “wasn’t a marquee acquisition for the real estate magnate, just an old single-story home and two vacant lots down the road.” Like the vacations, Thomas also did not publicly disclose the sale. His mother has lived in the home and continues to do so after ownership passed to Crow. The billionaire has been busy making expensive renovations to it.

There is no question that Thomas broke the law by failing to disclose his financial transactions with Crow. Every American should read the ProPublica reports on how one of the nine Supreme Court justices, whose jurisdiction covers the entire nation, appears to be in the pocket of a billionaire. The relationship between Crow and Thomas is a cozy one that has borne fruit for wealthy elites: the justice has routinely sided with moneyed interests and their influence on policymaking.

Before ProPublica’s April 2023 investigations, most reporting on the court’s first Black justice had focused on his white conservative wife. Ginni Thomas has been an activist spouse, overtly reflecting the conservative political sensibility that her husband affirms in his judicial decisions. During Barack Obama’s presidency, she founded a “Tea Party” nonprofit called Liberty Central, a move the New York Times described as “the most partisan role ever for a spouse of a justice on the nation’s highest court.”

She then went further, becoming a political lobbyist and leading a small and secretive organization called Liberty Consulting. A 2011 Politico report points out that she touted “her ‘experience and connections’ to help clients ‘with governmental affairs efforts.’” She made headlines last year for having pressured former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows via text messages to try to overturn the 2020 election results in favor of Donald Trump. More recently, the Washington Post published an investigation into anonymous donations totaling $600,000 made to yet another organization she leads called Crowdsourcers for Culture and Liberty. The donations helped fund the right’s vicious culture wars.

When asked about the conflicts of interest that her activism present for her husband’s work on the Supreme Court, Ginni Thomas has brushed them off, telling the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, “It’s laughable for anyone who knows my husband to think I could influence his jurisprudence… The man is independent and stubborn.” She also said in an interview with the conservative outlet the Washington Free Beacon, “Like so many married couples, we share many of the same ideals, principles, and aspirations for America.” She added, “But we have our own separate careers, and our own ideas and opinions too. Clarence doesn’t discuss his work with me, and I don’t involve him in my work.”

Well, that’s a relief. The sanctity of the nation’s highest court and its freedom from partisan influence rests on the word of a person who promises there’s no undue influence between a wife and her husband. This is a person who still believes that the 2020 election was stolen—a view that makes her even worse than Trump toady and former U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who said he would vote for Trump in 2024 but was at least able to admit that his election fraud claims were false.

In 2021, when Chief Justice John Roberts filed his year-end report on the federal judiciary, he stressed the importance of “impartial decision-making,” and that “[t]he Judiciary’s power to manage its internal affairs insulates courts from inappropriate political influence and is crucial to preserving public trust in its work as a separate and co-equal branch of government.” Apparently, Roberts was either ignorant of the Thomases’ doings or confident that Ginni’s promise of insulation from marital influence was good enough.

Although Clarence Thomas and his wife, Ginni, offer arguably the most explicit examples of corruptive influence on the Supreme Court, they are not alone. In December 2022, the New York Times revealed that an innocently named charity called the Supreme Court Historical Society has “become a vehicle for those seeking access to nine of the most reclusive and powerful people in the nation.” The organization has raised millions of dollars from secret donors. The majority of the money that the New York Times was able to identify came from “corporations, special interest groups, or lawyers and firms that argued cases before the court.” Justices attend the Supreme Court Historical Society’s annual dinner, offering a tantalizing chance for individual attendees to influence them—as the leader of an anti-abortion group apparently took advantage of.

Notwithstanding the liberal minority that includes Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson, this is a court that loves wealth and has protected it for more than half a century. It’s no wonder there is growing public disapproval of a body that is so influential that its highly anticipated decisions impact nearly every aspect of our lives, from abortion to guns, to labor unions, to LGBTQ rights, and more.

Supreme Court justices have lifetime tenure—ostensibly a mechanism to protect them from “partisan pressures.” But that only works if the regulations preventing corruptive influence are watertight and if there are actual consequences for violating such regulations. In the wake of the Nixon Watergate scandal, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act (EIGA) to ensure that officials like Supreme Court justices were independent of moneyed interests.

But even though Justice Thomas appears to have violated the EIGA, there is no direct mechanism to hold him accountable short of Congress starting impeachment proceedings against him—a move that has almost no precedent short of a House impeachment more than 200 years ago of a justice who was ultimately acquitted by the Senate.

No other democratically run nation on the planet gives its highest court justices lifetime tenure. Now, some legal experts have suggested term limits, and numerous Democratic senators have introduced the TERM Act, which would introduce 18-year terms for Supreme Court justices. This would mean that a new justice would replace one who was termed out every two years, and presidents would have two opportunities during each four-year tenure to appoint new justices.

In passing the TERM Act, the U.S. would join the rest of the world’s democratic nations in upholding an impartial judiciary, the Thomases could carry out their dystopian vision of the nation free from accusations of corruption—and billionaire Harlan Crow could even save himself some money.

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  1. Louiedog14

    A truly intelligent comment on Thomas should probably include some well chosen quips from our Beloved Founders or the Constitution or something, but…just speaking as a random guy sitting on his couch, a random guy who, by the way, has a decent understanding of Right and Wrong, and who also, by the way, just wrote a hefty Tax Day check to our Federal Gov (yes, I understand that money doesn’t actually pay for anything), all I can summon up is contempt. Our Sacred Institutions are the true deplorables. Lead story today is about arresting some 21 y.o. doofus for Espionage, but a Supreme taking bribes is *shrugs*.

    Contempt. Complete and utter contempt.

    1. griffen

      The grand experiment at self governing, well it is looking a bit long in the tooth, when we get around to applying rule of law quite unequally and in public view. Having a wealthy individual or wealthy couple doing overly solid favors when you sit upon the highest court of the land is a bridge too far.

      Exceptional job, Clarence. Rule of law my eye.

    2. Eric F

      I think it is well to remember that Clarence Thomas is only on the Supreme Court because of the intervention in his confirmation hearings by a certain Joe Biden.

      1. Jean-Luc Szpakowski

        Amen. Beggars will ride horses before Joe Biden does something that requires a backbone. Remember, he also did the bankrupcy bill that prevents student loan borrowers from declaring bankruptcy –unlike corporate America– and he just finished selling out the railroad union.

  2. Philip Ebersole

    An 18-year term limit for Supreme Court justices would be a good idea.
    But Section III, Article 1 on the Constitution says that “…The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their offices during Good Behavior…”
    This appears to me to rule out term limits.

    1. Bugs

      But if Congress did impose term limits, would the SC be able to impartially rule on the constitutionality of the statute?

    2. Bart Hansen

      At the time of the constitution life expectancy was around 40. This meant that justices served only 15-20 years at most.

      1. GramSci

        That stat is probably life-expectancy-at-birth. Once you factor out infant mortality, justices probably stayed on the court a long time in the old days, too. What has really changed is the pace of technological change that now obsoletes old, conservative values faster. A better solution might be to slow the pace of technological change by limiting the stimulant of private, personal profit.

        1. Jeff

          Didn’t realize that values so regularly become obsolete. Thanks for informing us of this. Keep up the great work!

    3. timbers

      Don’t see how that rules out term limits but does open the door to a judges removal should their behavior not be “Good”.

  3. Cassandra

    In the same sentence as the blunder about Thomas’s status as the first Black Justice (sic), the author states that reporting focused on the politics of his wife Ginni. In reality, Thomas was frequently mentioned in the news for his notorious silence on the bench: he went years without contributing to oral arguments. Less charitable readers wondered how much he contributed to his written opinions and how much was the work of his clerks.

    1. polar donkey

      I once met Clarence and Ginni Thomas. They came to restaurant I worked at. It was just the two of them. Sat at a table and just acted like regular customers. Clarence Thomas didn’t tell the waiter he was a Supreme Court justice. The waiter recognized him though. They were polite and friendly. I was outside the restaurant when they left, they walked down the street together holding hands. They just looked like regular tourists on vacation. They might be crooks, but at least cordial crooks.

  4. The Rev Kev

    After over thirty year on the bench, I doubt that he will be going anywhere. He would be too well entrenched. Certainly Thomas hanging around with a billionaire and receiving money from him in what amounts to a pretend land sale is not a good look but it may be a matter of how such links can now be justified by those Justices. Not hard to work out why the decisions of the Supreme Court are more and more business friendly over the past few decades.

  5. HH

    The plutocrats have learned that putting minority flunkies in positions of power gives them an impenetrable shield against reform. Thus Obama protected Wall Street and kept the war machine rolling, and Thomas protects corporations from unions and the public interest. Until the middle class feels the bite of growing inequality, nothing is going to change.

    1. Carolinian

      Thanks. Thomas may be bad news but the above just seems like the latest episode in “it’s ok if we do it.” After all not only Obama but also Biden or for that matter almost any of the politicians who would sit in Thomas’ judgment have huge conflicts of interest that they skirt by being the ones who make the laws. Compared to Biden and Hunter’s corruption Clarence Thomas seems like very small potatoes indeed.

      The Dem obsession with the Supreme Court is merely an excuse for their own failure to be honest about their true goals which these days aren’t much different from the Republicans. All are owned by the wealthy class and do their bidding.

  6. fresno dan

    Thomas simply proves that bribery is an intrinsic part of how the US operates…there is no way there will be any negative consequences because Thomas is acting in accord with American values, i.e., do what the rich want.

  7. Verifyfirst

    The Twitter mentions some important factoids, if true they are: the guy who paid for the trips and bought the property is Chairman of the American Enterprise Institute, which commonly files amicus briefs at the court; and Thomas disclosed many other items in the year of the property sale, down to a $500 gift, so it seems the non-disclosure was advertent.

  8. Horne Fisher

    Everyone has known how corrupt Thomas is for decades. While I would love to see him removed, I fear the timing of this will just be used by team blue as a dog whistle to make sure any lefties who are thinking of sitting 2024 out show up to vote.

    A nice impeachment, the. a left leaning Justice nominated by Biden nominates knowing there was never a chance, followed by a MCConnell, Manchin, Sinema led refusal to confirm because it’s an election year. Then voila-people show up to vote.

      1. orlbucfan

        Who needs them? Just go to your ‘old pal’ Google and type in his rotten name. The citation list would match Mt. Everest. He’s not the first, nor will he be the last, corrupt-to-the-core SCJ.

  9. Michael Fiorillo

    Incredible, isn’t it, how Uncle Joe’s legacy – stepping on Anita Hill and shepherding Thomas on to the Supreme Court, crime bills, the invasion of Iraq, the coup and proxy war in Ukraine, etc. – looks and gets worse by the day, yet it’s Orange Man whom we’re constantly being told is The True Danger?

    TDS is a powerful drug.

  10. Jason Boxman

    This calls into question the legitimacy of every Supreme Court decision for the past 25 years, frankly. Impeachment is not enough. We must go beyond that, but then America is a banana republic, so not going to happen. Read a high school civics book and you won’t even recognize this place. What a disgrace. And a pack of lies.

  11. David in Friday Harbor

    Impeach Earl Warren was the war chant of the John Birch Society 65 years ago. Now the Birchers and McCarthyites of my parents’ nightmares are triggered woke snowflakes.

    The L.A.Times reported this story nearly 20 years ago. Thomas’ wing-nut corruption and close ties to greed-head billionaire think tanks has been known to court followers for years. He is often in an 8-1 minority on the court.

    Getting rid of Thomas after Biden got him confirmed — Thanks Joe! — requires throwing-out the Constitution. Not an appealing prospect to me. Sonali Kolhatkar has repeatedly proven herself vapidly ignorant of history and unworthy of a repost on this excellent site.

    Please: Remember Thurgood Marshall!

  12. KD

    Its not clear you need term limits, and appointment is probably better than elections (because that puts more money into it). However, in states like California, they come up for public review every 5 years, and unless the voters in a majority vote to reinstate, they walk.

  13. flora

    Who is the B admin lining up as a replacement, I wonder. Merrick Garland? He was O’s choice. / ;)

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