Supremely unconcerned with ethics
Justices Thomas and Alito are annoyed by all of this. If Chief Justice Roberts cares, meanwhile, he's not letting that be known outside of the court.
It’s “back to school” time, and it’s become pretty clear that the justices of the Supreme Court could use some schooling — in ethics.
This past week, we were finally able to see Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alitos’s financial disclosure reports from 2022. Both justices had sought extensions for the filing of their reports, leading to the end-of-August public disclosure of the reports. (Alito’s report was dated June 23, while Thomas’s was dated Aug. 9.)
And though Justice Elena Kagan has said that the justices “have a variety of views about” the questions surrounding the court’s ethics practices, as the Associated Press put it, it is clear — from their words and actions — that Thomas and Alito’s “view” is that they will do the absolute minimum and that we should be happy they’re doing that.
This is not right.
There are legitimate questions that have been raised about whether Thomas’s failure to disclose past travel is illegal. Even outside of that, however, “doing the absolute minimum and proud of it” is not the standard we should be seeking from justices.
For Thomas, this looks like a whole lot of words explaining why he can’t believe anyone is making him — and those helping him — do all of this.
As I told Stephanie Ruhle on MSNBC’s The 11th Hour on Aug. 31, the word “inadvertently” appears 16 times in the 1,300-word “additional information or explanations” section of Thomas’s report — which includes some past-year disclosures, in addition to explanations of this year’s disclosures.
Regarding this year’s disclosures, more than 400 words of Thomas’s “explanations” section contains a barely-hiding-his-annoyance discussion of why he says that he hadn’t included “personal hospitality“ transportation previously.
Notably, Thomas stated in the “explanations” section that he “continues to work with Supreme Court officials and the Committee staff for guidance on whether he should further amend his reports from any prior years.” So, he took these extra months, released a lengthy statement along with the report, and gave himself an out for this report still being incomplete by telling us that more “supplemental information” like Harlan Crow’s Savannah land purchase could be forthcoming later.
Those weren’t the only words required to get Thomas’s report out the door and to the public, either. Thomas hired a private lawyer, Elliot Berke, to advise him on all of this. Berke issued his own more-than-2,200-word “statement and executive summary” on his private law firm’s website “on Behalf of Client Justice Clarence Thomas” to explain — in far more politicized terms — how Thomas and allies view all of this.
“[P]ersonal friends” like billionaire Harlan Crow — who Thomas only met after becoming one of the nine, lifetime-tenured justices of the Supreme Court — “who happen to be wealthy“ — and happen to have a similar ideological worldview and, again in the case of Crow, happen to be willing to spend substantial amounts of money on giving Thomas and his wife and family a better life than they might otherwise have been able to live.
And, of course, even all of that has mainly become such an issue in recent months because Thomas hadn’t disclosed hardly any of this spending on his behalf in the past — not until the reporting about it that his lawyer is now attacking came out.
All told, more than 3,500 words were needed to explain Thomas’s delayed financial disclosure report, which we are told on its face might not yet have addressed all that might need to be amended from past years’ reports.
But, don’t fret, Berke stated that “Justice Thomas’s amended report answers — and utterly refutes— the charges trumped up in this partisan feeding frenzy.”
The report that has a 1,300-word explanation section, said there could be further amendments, and also required a 2,200-word private-lawyer statement “utterly refutes” these repeated and extensive ethical questions about Thomas’s behavior as a justice of the Supreme Court.
For Alito, as I discussed over the weekend on MSNBC’s American Voices with guest host Julián Castro, it’s a bit more simple for me, at least on the financial disclosure front: Alito continues to have significant individual stock ownership.1
According to his 2022 report, Alito owns individual stock in more than 25 companies in a wide range of major industries — including medical companies (Abbott Laboratories), aerospace (Boeing), defense contractors (Raytheon), and major domestic product manufacturing (Proctor & Gamble).
In addition to this choice leading to Alito’s recusal in many cases, it also means that Alito is certainly hearing and deciding cases that affect these industries because the specific companies themselves are not involved.
As I told Castro, it’s irresponsible.
And, that’s not all. We still have no answers about Alito’s participation in Moore v. United States — a case being heard by the Supreme Court this term that is of big interest to rich people and those who want to tax their wealth — given Alito’s use of one of the lawyers representing the Moores to help get out his airing of grievances repeatedly this year in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
In short, ethics questions about the Supreme Court continue to be unresolved as the country heads back to school.
A month from now, though, the Supreme Court will also be back in session, starting its new term. And should Roberts continue to ignore ethics questions by letting them fester, he will be continuing to harm the court.
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This was updated after initial publication to more accurately refer to the stock as “individual stock.”