Are the US Supreme Court justices Above the Law? // Business dealings that are raising questions

The US Supreme Court in Washington DC with dark storm clouds

When a court case comes in front of a judge, we want to believe that the judge will consider it without bias or favoritism. But we also establish codes of conduct that limit and control what kinds of gifts judges can accept and what relationships they can have—in some cases with criminal consequences for breaking those rules.

The US Supreme Court, however, doesn’t have the same guidelines for its members’ conduct, and that has some legislators champing at the bit to put new rules in place. This has been spurred by revelations about gifts and transactions from which two right-leaning Supreme Court justices—Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch—have benefited.

In an age of hyper-partisanship, there was no way these issues would avoid becoming partisan. With an aggressive conservative Supreme Court overturning precedent in a way that has riled up Democrats and satisfied Republicans, it was inevitable that questions about the justices’ ethics would become politicized.

The facts, however, may lie somewhere in the middle. And there are multiple questions to answer, including whether any of the justices have done anything wrong, and even if they haven’t, whether we want anything to change going forward.

What is Clarence Thomas accused of having done?

The recent accusations against Justice Thomas center around his relationship with billionaire Harlan Crow, his acceptance of gifts from Crow, and Crow’s purchase of Thomas’ mother’s home.

ProPublica reported that over two decades, Thomas and his wife have gone on yearly trips with Crow, including trips on private jets and yachts that were likely worth in the tens of millions of dollars. Thomas did not disclose these trips on the forms that Supreme Court justices are supposed to fill out to show the gifts they have received.

Thomas did report one trip with Crow, in 1997. He also reported some other gifts that Crow gave him, such as a $19,000 Bible.

Thomas also did not disclose Crow’s purchase of his mother’s home and several other adjacent properties, which were partly owned by Thomas himself. These properties were purchased in 2014 for a price of $133,363. And while Thomas’ mother continued to live there, Crow’s company went on to make a series of major improvements to the house, adding a carport, repairing the roof, and adding a fence and gate—repairs worth tens of thousands of dollars.

There have been some prior concerns about the flow of money between Crow and Thomas. In 2011, it was reported that Crow had given $500,000 to a political organization founded by Ginni Thomas, Justice Thomas’ wife, an organization from which she drew a yearly salary of $120,000.

According to both Thomas and Crow, their joint activities have arisen from their close friendship, which developed over the decades. Crow says that he has paid for a number of projects celebrating Thomas and that his purchase of Thomas’ mother’s home was for the purpose of eventually creating a museum celebrating his life.

Most of the concern about Crow’s monetary gifts and payments to Thomas are related to Thomas’ lack of filing and the question of disclosure of influence on the Supreme Court. However, Bloomberg also reported that a company tied to Harlan Crow did have business before the Supreme Court.

In 2005, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case Womack+Hampton Architects v. Metric Holdings Limited Partnership, concerning a copyrighted architectural drawing. No justice recused himself from examination of the case, however.

Womack+Hampton Architects’ parent company was Trammell Crow Residential Company. At the time, the Crow family had a non-controlling interest in Trammell Crow Residential Company.

Harlan Crow has said that as a non-controlling shareholder, he had no idea that the case in question was before the Supreme Court. That still does not explain why Justice Thomas failed to recuse himself, and as of now he has not commented on the case.

What is Neil Gorsuch accused of having done?

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